My View | State Sen. George Barker: Vote “Yes!” on Amendment 1

My View | State Sen. George Barker: Vote “Yes!” on Amendment 1
State Sen. George Barker (Courtesy photo)

If Virginia voters ratify a Constitutional Amendment to establish a transparent, fair process for redrawing congressional and legislative districts, we will have maps next year that reflect the preferences and desires of Virginia’s voters.

If the referendum fails, we will leave the sole responsibility for drawing districts with the legislature, which has a sordid redistricting history.

Virginia gerrymandering goes back to Colonial times and has continued into the 21st century. In 1789, James Monroe, an anti-federalist, ran for Congress in a district gerrymandered for anti-federalists by Gov. Patrick Henry against federalist candidate
James Madison.

In the most recent redistricting a decade ago, two of the three maps drawn, those for Congress and the Virginia House of Delegates, were found by courts to be unconstitutional because of racial gerrymandering.

Black Virginians were packed into as few districts as could readily be done, reducing the power of Black voters to elect people of their choosing. The courts produced new maps that enabled voters to elect new legislators.

We need a new process now to keep from repeating those mistakes.

Given our racial history, it is important that the proposed Constitutional Amendment addresses racial and ethnic fairness and participation. The amendment requires conformity to laws addressing such racial and ethnic fairness, including the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

The amendment also requires providing racial and ethnic communities opportunities for electing candidates of their choice. Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert formerly in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, states that the amendment provides protection for minority communities that does not currently exist.

The amendment has numerous features providing checks and balances. Rather than having the majority party draw lines, the amendment would create a 16-member commission. The commission would have eight citizen members, selected by retired judges, and eight legislators, four Democrats and four Republicans.

Maps would have to receive the votes of at least six of the eight citizen members and at least six of the eight legislators. The super-majority requirements are designed to ensure that neither the legislators nor the citizens could control the process and that neither political party could be disadvantaged.

Further, because the U.S. Constitution requires a role for legislatures in drawing congressional districts, the amendment specifies that maps go to the legislature for votes with no changes allowed.

The amendment would end the practice of secretive drawing of districts by requiring full transparency throughout the process. The public would have opportunities for participation, with all records and documents available.

Finally, the amendment preserves the role of the courts. Virginia, like the other states throughout America, already has its Supreme Court as the final arbiter of redistricting oth- er than when federal law applies. Because Virginia is one of two states with legislative elections next year and has to redistrict quickly, the amendment would have the case go directly to the Supreme Court of Virginia in the unlikely event that the commission fails to agree on maps in a timely manner.

The Supreme Court is required to comply with our laws, such as one requiring maps, when considered on a state-wide basis, from unduly favoring any political party. In addition, a pending proposal would require the Court to work with two redistricting experts, one from each party, in any redistricting.

This constitutional amendment would dramatically improve our redistricting, address racial and ethnic fairness and participation, bring citizens to the table, mandate openness and transparency and end partisan gerrymandering.

It is time, Virginia. We should not go back to what has failed us. Please vote “yes” on Amendment 1.

The writer, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 39th district in the state senate, is a patron of the Virginia Redistricting Constitutional Amendment.