Get the amendment on the ballot

Published 9:25 pm Tuesday, February 4, 2020

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The gerrymandering of election districts is a tradition as old as our Republic. That long history, however, should be a source of shame rather than pride.


Gerrymandering is, quite simply, an effort by politicians currently in power to manipulate who will remain in power in the future by shaping election districts favorable to their will.


Politicians who are uncertain that their political message is acceptable to a majority of voters use gerrymandering to shape the electorate to their benefit, rather than shaping their policies to the will of the electorate.


The art of gerrymandering seemed fairly harmless and sometimes downright sporting to many politicians during its long history, but it took on a darker, more sinister hue with the advent of computerized population profiles. Twenty-first century software allows computers to pinpoint quite precisely those who are most likely to vote Democratic or Republican. The computers can then draw election lines around those who will dance to the tune of the party drawing the lines.


Democrats and Republicans have both used gerrymandering to their advantage, but the emerging technology has, up until now, was available to Republicans who controlled the General Assembly marginally in 2000 and broadly in 2010.


Gerrymandering, however, is a classic example of “live by the sword, die by the sword.” That which gerrymandering gives, it can also take. Despite their favorable redistricting in 2010, Republican control of the Virginia General Assembly declined in recent years and just this past November vanished completely.


Now, it’s Democrats who are in charge, having won majorities in both the House of Delegates and Senate last fall. It is they who will determine how districts are drawn in 2021. As the party in power, they are now faced with the challenge of moving away from gerrymandering or embracing it.


During the past few years, here in Virginia as well as in other states, responsible active as well as retired politicians and students of government generally realized that gerrymandering was no longer the tit-for-tat game of the majority in power. Voters everywhere had become pawns in the game for power being played by both major parties, and something had to be done.


In Virginia, a bipartisan group known as OneVirginia began an educational and lobbying effort to convince the General Assembly that Virginia voters deserve a relatively non-political redistricting approach.


The result was a constitutional amendment that was approved by the General Assembly last year. It’s not a perfect alternative to the old ways of winner takes all, but it would bring about significant improvements. The amendment calls for creation of a commission on redistricting.


There are proposals before the Assembly this year that might strengthen the redistricting goals by demanding that communities of interest be respected during the redistricting process and that redistricting reflect the state’s population diversity.


They are important discussions, but the constitutional amendment is the first step. A resolution endorsing it must be adopted in precisely the same language as a year ago in order for it to go to Virginia’s voters next fall. If that is not done, then the effort dies. This constitutional amendment needs to go to the people of Virginia, and only the Democratic Party, which now holds majorities in both houses, can ensure that it does.


Democrats have it in their power to shed the ways of the past and give Virginia a redistricting process that future generations can view with pride. I sincerely hope they will.