By Larry Hincker
I hate gerrymandering. It flies in the face of a fundamental constitutional principle – one-person, one-vote. Columnists, including this one, have railed against gerrymandered electoral districts, which essentially weight certain votes more than others.
Gerrymandering, if not the primary cause, is certainly at the root of the current national political divide. It gives amplified voice and veto power to small minorities of voters – usually at the extremes of the political spectrum. Politicians have no need to compromise. It neuters communities of interest. It is disaster for the body politic.
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court failed to find in favor of plaintiffs in several anti-gerrymandering suits. I think they got it right. They looked at the facts; they looked at the Constitution. They ruled that there is nothing in that august document that prevents gerrymandering.
Chief Justice John Roberts did not defend the practice, or say it was constitutional. “Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” he wrote. “But the fact that such gerrymandering is incompatible with democratic principles does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary.”
Rather than create laws from the bench, which has been the M.O. for liberal and conservative courts for well more than seven decades, it elected to punt the issue squarely back into the hands of legislators — the people’s representatives.
Democrats sued Republicans. Republicans sued Democrats. SCOTUS said — hey, neither one of you have constitutional protection. That doesn’t stop Rs and Ds, of course, from doing everything in their power to protect their privileges and control the electoral process…at the local, state, and national level. But there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prevents manipulation of state electoral districts. (State boundaries themselves are effectively the federal electoral districts. The feds and the Constitution have plenty to say about that.)
What about legal manipulation of electoral maps, most notably to protect minority voter rights? Congress has carved out, through voting rights acts and other bills, protected status for certain groups based on ethnicity. …but not Rs and Ds or any other political party.
What’s a voter to do? In effect, the justices said that this is a political not constitutional problem. That means it must be corrected within the legislative branches. In the case of Congressional or state legislative electoral boundaries, that requires action on the part of state legislatures.
That is why I am pleased with Virginia’s solution. After strong political leadership from One Virginia 2021, the 2019 General Assembly approved legislation to amend the state constitution providing for an independent redistricting commission. For the first time in recent memory, anti-gerrymandering efforts have support of both Republicans and Democrats. The fact that Dems almost flipped the House in the 2017 elections might have had some effect on the Rs recent conversion. No matter. I think both parties now see the evil — rampant manipulation of electoral districts silences voters, is neither fair nor just, and it erodes support for the political process.
The Virginia Redistricting Commission would:
n Be made up of eight legislators and eight citizens with a citizen chairperson,
n Be selected by retired judges from lists provided by both parties in both chambers of the General Assembly,
n Require the votes of six legislators and six citizens to pass final electoral maps,
n Give the legislature an up-or-down vote but not the ability to amend (emphasis added), and
n Be fully transparent with every step of the proceedings open to the public.
Hurdles remain. The bill must be passed again in the 2020 session, which will be a new body after this fall’s General Assembly elections. Finally, before becoming law, it will require voter approval in the fall 2020 election.
So, what can a voter do? I suggest that you let your legislators know you support the constitutional amendment (Senate Joint Resolution No. 306). Furthermore, you should consider making your vote for the House of Delegates and State Senate dependent upon a candidate’s support for the constitutional amendment. This fall, all 100 House of Delegates seats and all 40 Senate seats are up for vote. Let them know how you feel.
I commend the 2019 General Assembly for this bold action. It is the first step in truly returning elections to the people and not the political parties. For further information, check out www.onevirginia2021.org.
Hincker is a retired public relations executive living in Blacksburg.