RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - Five states had ballot initiatives this year that aimed to take redistricting out of the hands of partisan legislators and put it into the hands of nonpartisan committees. And in all five states, the initiatives won.
This now makes a total of 10 states that have independent redistricting committees in charge of allocating congressional districts ahead of the decennial national census. And with the the next census getting underway in 2020, an effort in Virginia hopes to make the commonwealth No. 11.
Partisan redistricting is more often known by its nickname gerrymandering. It’s the practice of allowing partisan politicians to draw district lines for the areas that they serve, often with one-sided results and with districts that appear oddly shaped to make districts less competitive.
It’s led to many lengthy lawsuits across the country, against both Democratic and Republican-led legislatures, but ballot initiatives, like those adopted in Michigan, Missouri, Utah, Colorado and Ohio, are proving to be a less litigious and more successful way to make districts more fair.
“[It] shows us how fed up voters are with their legislators operating for their own benefit rather than representing the interests of their voters,” said Ruth Greenwood, senior legal counsel for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, about why voters appear to be more interested now in a political issue usually reserved for pollsters and data scientists.
Greenwood and her organization are at the forefront of the push to nix gerrymandering wherever possible. In a report released this summer, they provided an outline for citizens and legislators to help address the issue, though Greenwood said they've been involved in fighting gerrymandering since 2004.
And for those who are hoping to address gerrymandering in their home states, these resources are invaluable. Such was the case in Virginia when the group OneVirginia2021 set out to address the problem in the commonwealth.
“Considering the chaos in the Virginia legislature ... it makes this a perfect moment for both parties to come together and depoliticize this process,” said Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021.
Part of that chaos are the many lawsuits that have plagued the state’s redistricting process - including one heading to the Supreme Court this session - at both state and congressional levels. Add to that the blue wave, which saw the once-red state shift its state House nearly Democratic in 2017, and Cannon believes both parties might come together to pass the constitutional amendment his group released Thursday.
The process of drafting that amendment started years ago when the group first started informing the public about the issue, but that work finally began to take shape in August of this year when a bipartisan group of former legislators and elected officials came together to help craft a system the group hopes both parties can agree on.
“No matter where you fall on the political spectrum you fall, you can look at the citizen committee and find someone to agree with, and that reflects the overwhelming number of Virginians who support this,” Cannon said. “We think the Legislature is ready to listen.”
But they’ll need the Legislature on board, and they’ll need it now. Constitutional amendments in Virginia require a specific timeline to get on the ballot, and if the bill fails this session then it’ll put the state’s redistricting efforts on hold until the next census in 2030.
Luckily Emmett Hanger, a Republican state senator from a rural western part of the state, has worked on this issue before. He’s gotten similar legislation out of the Senate in the past, though it died in the House. But he said this new effort has “broad support” and, with help from public support drummed up by OneVirginia2021 and language drafted with help from the experts at the Campaign Legal Center, he thinks the timing is finally right.
“It makes sense, and while you can’t remove politics from the [redistricting process], you can make it a fair process which minimizes gerrymandering,” he said.
Virginia’s Democratic Party is similarly chomping at the bit to get this measure on the ballot. In a statement released shortly after the bill’s announcement, House Democratic Caucus Executive Director Trevor Southerland said his party has long advocated for “independent redistricting as a means to prevent harmful racial and partisan gerrymandering.”
“We have great hope that when the districts are redrawn in 2021, it will be done by an independent commission," he added.
While Virginia’s constitutional amendment was released to the public today, it won't get voted on until January. It’ll then need to pass both branches of the state House again in 2019 before going on the ballot in November 2020.
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