Voting is underway here in Virginia – for the Presidency, U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, but there are also two issues on the ballot – proposed amendments to the state constitution.
Virginia’s constitution specifies that every ten years the legislature and governor should redraw political districts based on the census. Critics say legislators use detailed maps and computers to choose their voters --drawing districts that favor them.
“Both parties have presented maps that are gerrymandered. That’s got to stop,” says Brian Cannon, Executive Director of Fair Maps Virginia. That group that has worked for seven years to change that. By law, any change to our constitution must be approved by the General Assembly in two successive years and then win approval from the voters. Lawmakers said okay in 2018, but last year state senators slammed on the brakes – refusing to approve any deal that left them out of the process.
“There are some lawmakers who contend that there is a role for legislators in the process, in part because they are also experts on the political geography of Virginia,” says Sally Hudson, a Delegate representing Charlottesville.
She and Cannon disagree, but they’ve supporting the change that lawmakers finally approved. It would allow political leaders in the General Assembly to appoint eight state lawmakers – four Democrats and four Republicans – and to nominate eight citizens who would serve on a commission to redraw districts. Delegate Cia Price, who represents parts of Hampton and Newport News, says that’s not a compromise worth making.
“I can, whole-heartedly as a legislator, say that legislators should be nowhere near the drawing table when it comes to redistricting. In this amendment, legislators drive the process from start to finish,” she explains.
Price argues the proposed amendment doesn’t provide sufficient protection for Black and Hispanic voters who could still be drawn into districts that dilute their voting power.
“Nothing in our history says that diversity happens on its own. It is usually mandated for it to be there, and this just does not do that, and it also does not end gerrymandering. This is definitely something we need to work on prior to putting it into the constitution.”
Sally Hudson concedes the protections for minority groups could be stronger, but the amendment adopts language from the federal Voting Rights Act.
“Which is that those communities should have the option to elect candidates of their choice, so even if the federal voting rights act were further undermined, that idea is explicitly laid out in the amendment itself.”
Many experts, advocacy groups and newspapers have endorsed the current proposal, and Brian Cannon gives it kudos for requiring that redistricting be done in public.
“It adds transparency, kills that smoky back room where this has often happened, and so now we’re talking about a transparent process where citizens are involved no one party can get over on the other, and we hope that we can take the next step for the next decade and get all politicians out of the system completely.”
Also on the ballot, an amendment to excuse veterans who have a service related disability from paying state and local taxes on cars and pick-up trucks. That seems like a generous gesture of thanks, but opponents wonder why it needs to be in the constitution. They note even wealthy veterans would qualify, and if disabled veterans get a tax break, should it also be extended to injured police officers, firemen, healthcare providers and others who have sacrificed for the public good?