Our View: A rare chance for redistricting reform

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Our View: A rare chance for redistricting reform
The state flag of Virginia. (Photo/Missy Schrott)
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While uncommon, sometimes good policy aligns with politics to generate bipartisan support for needed change.

This happened in the mid-1990s, when a moderate Democratic president, Bill Clinton, allowed states to experiment with welfare reform initiatives and then signed the 1996 federal welfare reform bill, passed by a majority Republican Congress, into law. This bill corrected many of the unintended negative consequences of the Great Society legislation of the 1960s.

Virginia voters have a similar opportunity this fall to enact important change in the Commonwealth: redistricting reform.

Nationwide, the drawing of congressional districts has long been a messy business. The U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures control over the drawing of districts, meaning the majority party in state legislatures gets to design districts to its political benefit based on the decennial census.

A “to the victor belongs the spoils” attitude has prevailed, and districts have been gerrymandered for political gain and as a tool of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement. Many millions of dollars have been spent on lawsuits challenging and remediating discriminatory districting.

Groups that advocate for good governance policies, such as the League of Women Voters, have long supported efforts to make redistricting non-partisan or at least bipartisan. Generally, the party in power resists such measures, while the party out of power supports them.

Another hurdle to redistricting reform in Virginia is our state constitution, which is deliberately difficult to amend: a proposed change to the constitution must pass both the House of Delegates and the state Senate in successive years, then goes on the ballot and must be approved by a majority of voters in the state.

Since the party in power usually resists relinquishing control of redistricting, efforts to enact reform in Virginia have historically gone nowhere. This year was different.

This year, Virginia has experienced a rare alignment of the stars where politics and good policy have combined to give voters a historic chance to largely eradicate partisanship from our electoral map. See the Times’ Page 1 story, “Redistricting Virginia” for details on the proposal.

This is not to say that the politicians in our state legislature have suddenly grown angel wings and foresworn partisanship. No, there’s been plenty of political wrangling and hypocrisy from both parties:

● Republicans resisted redistricting reform for years while they had solid majorities in both the House of Delegates and state Senate, while Democrats generally favored reform.

● Last year, when Republicans knew there was a good chance they’d lose their majorities in the November 2019 state election, they changed course and supported redistricting reform.

● Democrats overwhelmingly voted for the redistricting reform plan in 2019, and many Democratic candidates won their seats in part because of their support for this reform.

● After taking control of both chambers of the state legislature, all but nine Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against the amendment in the 2020 General Assembly session.

Those nine brave Democrats put doing the right thing over political gain. Unfortunately, Alexandria’s members of the House of Delegates, Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-46) and Del. Mark Levine (D-45), were not among the nine.

Herring and Levine supported the measure in 2019 when Democrats were in the minority. This year they discovered previously unseen flaws in the legislation and changed their votes.

Conversely, Alexandria’s state Senator, Adam Ebbin (D-30), has strongly supported redistricting reform in both 2019 and 2020. Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35) summed it up best when he candidly chastised his party members who opposed the reform: “The arguments against that were pure b——-t. I’ve been around here long enough,” the Virginia Mercury reported.

Those nine Democratic votes in the House, combined with overwhelming support from both parties in the Senate, are what got this initiative on the ballot. It’s difficult to see politics aligning this way again in the lifetimes of anyone voting this year.

We get one chance at this, and we, the voters, need to not flub it. To lessen partisan wrangling in redistricting, vote “yes” on Nov. 3

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