Party lines: A close look at the controversial gerrymandering amendment that could define a decade of Virginia politics

This cartoon, first published in 1812 in the Boston Gazette, shows Massachusetts legislator Elbridge Gerry’s district drawn in the shape of a salamander—a “gerry-mander.” We’ve been using the term ever since. This cartoon, first published in 1812 in the Boston Gazette, shows Massachusetts legislator Elbridge Gerry’s district drawn in the shape of a salamander—a “gerry-mander.” We’ve been using the term ever since.

“As early as the middle of the seventeenth century, the government of Virginia was a government of the tobacco planters, by the tobacco planters, and for the tobacco planters. Restrictions on the suffrage and distribution of representative seats secured their political dominance,” writes historian Brent Tarter in his 2019 book Gerrymanders.

Four hundred years later, manipulating the “distribution of representative seats,” a process now called gerrymandering, remains a central tool with which Virginia’s ruling parties consolidate their own power. And gerrymandering has influenced the makeup of the state’s legislative bodies to an alarming degree in the last decade.

In 2011, Republicans controlled the Virginia House of Delegates and Republican Bob McDonnell sat in the governor’s mansion, so Republicans took charge of the redistricting process following the 2010 census. The maps they drew have produced some wildly disproportionate election results.

In 2012, for example, Democrats running for Congress in the commonwealth earned 48.2 percent of all votes cast. With that outcome, you’d expect them to take control of roughly half of the available seats—yet they won just three of 11 seats, a 27.3 percent yield. Later, in the 2017 House of Delegates election, the same thing happened: Democrats across the state beat Republicans by 9 percentage points, but the two parties each won 50 House seats. And in 2018, Charlottesville-Albemarle, a metro area with more than 150,000 people, voted for the Democratic congressional candidate by a 70.4 to 29.6 margin, but wound up, yet again, with a Republican representative.

Gerrymandering takes many forms. Isolated urban areas like Charlottesville can be buried in districts with hundreds of miles of rural countryside. Voters of similar demographics can be lumped into one district, concentrating their votes in a single seat and limiting their influence in a larger region. That practice is known as racial gerrymandering, and has historically been used to disenfranchise Black voters in the commonwealth.

With the 2020 census underway, our electoral districts will soon be redrawn once again. Ever since the days of the tobacco planters, the party in power has held the authority to draw the district lines. Both Republicans and Democrats have taken advantage of that power over the years, using their influence over the maps to secure electoral victory against the odds. That pattern, however, could soon change.

This fall’s ballot offers voters a chance to weigh in on an amendment to the Virginia constitution that would create a bipartisan redistricting commission, comprised of legislators and citizens, and bestowed with the power to sign off on the maps.

The amendment’s journey to the ballot has been dramatic, with supporters and opponents crossing traditional party lines to push it through. For most voters, the amendment won’t seem nearly as compelling as the names at the top of the ballot—but it will quite literally shape the politics of Charlottesville and Virginia for at least the next decade.

Divided Democrats

“The strength of this amendment is that it ends partisan gerrymandering,” says Brian Cannon, former executive director of OneVirginia2021 and current head of FairMapsVa. Cannon and these organizations have spent more than five years working full-time to bring this amendment to life. “It makes racial gerrymandering illegal under our state constitution for the first time in 401 years, and it ensures a transparent process for redistricting, so we can all be involved and be watchdogs,” he says. 

It wasn’t easy for the amendment’s proponents to reach this point. In Virginia, all new constitutional amendments must originate in the legislature—so it’s rare to pass amendments in which the majority party loses power. But 2019 was a “perfect storm,” says Cannon. “The Republicans were still in charge but saw the writing on the wall that they were likely to lose, and the Democrats were not in charge yet. So we got a pretty significant step forward on redistricting through the General Assembly.” 

The amendment passed the Senate 40 to 0 and the House 83 to 15. One passage isn’t enough, however. To amend the Virginia constitution, the same bill must pass in two separate legislative sessions, and then be voted into law by the public. 

When Democrats took control of the legislature ahead of the 2020 session, Cannon says, “My reform friends in blue states, some of them texted me, and they said, ‘Your job just got harder.’”

Newly empowered, Democrats took a longer look at the amendment they had overwhelmingly passed just 12 months prior. 

“In 2019, when that redistricting amendment came before us, it was the best we could do at that time. But it still isn’t what we need,” Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy told C-VILLE in an interview earlier this summer. Carroll Foy is a member of the House Legislative Black Caucus, which led the charge against the amendment. 

Carroll Foy gets at the heart of an important point: In a perfect world, redistricting would be nonpartisan. Instead, this amendment proposes a commission that’s bipartisan, with four legislators from each party working with eight citizens appointed by the legislature. If the commission is deadlocked, which seems likely to happen at some point, ties would be broken by the Virginia Supreme Court—currently composed of judges appointed by Republicans. 

Members of the Black Caucus have expressed concerns that the amendment doesn’t do enough to prevent racial gerrymandering. The last round of Republican maps included illegal racial gerrymanders in the Richmond area, which were struck down in a 2019 case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The official Democratic Party of Virginia has come out against the amendment, as have the Arlington Democrats and the NAACP of Virginia.

“I have always stood for a third-party, non-partisan commission being responsible for drawing our maps,” Carroll Foy says. “I can see that that’s something that’s not going to happen.”

“The thing that swayed me was the words of Delegate Jeion Ward,” she says. “She stood up and said, ‘many people who support this redistricting amendment, they’ll get up and tell you that it’s not good, that it’s good enough, that it’s the best we can do right now.’ When you have something like the Virginia constitution—our most sacred document, our foundational document—do you really put substandard amendments in the constitution? Because once you put it in, it’s almost impossible to get it out.”

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy

Carroll Foy, a public defender and relative newcomer to the House, announced her 2021 campaign for governor earlier this year. The other state legislator who has announced a gubernatorial run, Senator Jennifer McClellan, falls on the other side of the party on the redistricting issue. 

McClellan, a longtime state politician with a reputation for legislative savvy, calls the amendment “a good example of where you have to be a little more pragmatic. There were a lot of people over the past two years who said they wanted a bipartisan commission to draw the lines, and not 140 legislators. To me that was the only way to get it done for 2021.” 

She calls the bipartisan commission “better than the status quo,” and points to a bill amending the criteria by which new lines are drawn as an important step forward on eliminating gerrymandering. That bill will take effect independent of the proposed amendment.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan

Cannon says Democrats will be able to prevent racial gerrymandering by appointing diverse members to the commission, that “the dynamics ensure diversity.”

Ultimately, the amendment passed its second vote 38 to 2 in the Senate and 54 to 46 in the House—nine Democrats joined all 45 Republicans to get the amendment on November’s ballot.

This fall’s vote is the final step on the amendment’s journey to the constitution. Objections from the Democrats have eroded some support for the measure, but haven’t flipped the script completely. In January, a poll from Mason-Dixon found 72 percent of voters supported the amendment and 17 percent opposed. This month, a poll from Christoper Newport University’s public policy center showed a 48-28 split. 

Walking the line

Delegate Sally Hudson of Charlottesville was one of the nine House democrats who broke with their party to support the amendment this year. Hudson describes herself as an Elizabeth Warren democrat—she says she’s “a person who likes plans”—and in this case, she’s comfortable playing the long game. 

“Count me among the many people who want us to get to an independent commission,” she says. Hudson feels that passing this half measure will make passing a better amendment easier down the road. Getting this through, with some Democrats on the record saying it’s not good enough, “is the leverage we’re going to need to bring Democrats back to the table and finish the job,” she says.

Del. Sally Hudson

If the amendment’s opponents had presented a concrete alternative plan that featured a fully independent commission, Hudson might have been willing to scratch this one. But neither chamber ever held a vote on an independent commission, and “that’s where I really started to get queasy about all this,” she says.

And Hudson disagrees with Carroll Foy’s reverence for the Virginia constitution. “The constitution is a constant work in progress,” she says. “It has always been a practical document that represents the best [the legislature] could get done. It’s always been loaded with frustrating compromise. That lowers the stakes a little and helps us think strategically.”

Hudson’s been in the house for less than a year, but that didn’t deter her from crossing party lines on a major vote. “I had mentors who were like, ‘You ran because you care about fairness and corruption. These are the kind of votes you got here to take,’” she says. “Some votes you take so you can look yourself in the eye.”

Charlottesville’s future

For 18 of the last 20 years, Charlottesville has been represented by a Republican in Congress. Chalk that up to the shape of Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, which contains vast swaths of rural southern and central Virginia, stops just short of Roanoke in the west, doesn’t quite enter the greater Richmond area in the east, and reaches north to grab a handful of Republican-leaning counties on the outskirts of northern Virginia. It’s been carefully composed to encompass as many contiguous rural communities as possible without including any other urban areas.

J. Miles Coleman, a political map specialist and associate editor at the UVA Center for Politics, says he doesn’t think a bipartisan commission would dramatically alter the 5th District, but that some changes could be in the works.

“If you look at what happened to the 5th District in the last round of redistricting, they added that northern part—Greene County, Fauquier, Rappahannock—I could see maybe that being taken,” Coleman says. 

Virginia’s current fifth district (light green) extends north of Charlottesville, into rural counties between here and northern Virginia. If the proposed amendment passes, a bipartisan redistricting commission could very well remove those counties from the district, reverting the fifth back to roughly its pre-2011 and creating a more competitive district.

Even shaving off a few Republican-leaning counties from the northern part of the district could make a big difference in future elections. In 2018, the four counties north of Albemarle, which were all added to the district by Republicans, cast 7,742 more votes for Republican Denver Riggleman than for Democrat Leslie Cockburn. 

This year, Democrat Cameron Webb and Republican Bob Good are polling neck and neck for the 5th. If subsequent 5th District elections are as competitive as this year’s, the outcome could certainly be swung by less than 7,000 votes. If this amendment passes, and the bipartisan commission removes those counties from the 5th, the district becomes significantly more competitive in 2022 and beyond. 

And other local seats could also change if the amendment passes. “At the state legislature, one of the districts I’m fascinated by is the state senate district that’s held by [Democrat] Creigh Deeds,” Coleman says. “It basically starts out in Albemarle county and it runs to the West Virginia border… If you’re taking a truly nonpartisan approach, that’s one of those seats where I doubt it really stands.” 

Should the amendment fail, Democrats will be able to sketch new maps with impunity. Democrats could move Charlottesville out of the 5th District and into the 7th, just to the east. That move would concede the 5th to Republicans, but lock in a strong majority for sitting representative Abigail Spanberger, who narrowly unseated a Republican incumbent in 2018. 

In the House of Delegates, Coleman says, Democrats who hope to gerrymander themselves into a huge majority would be able to make some gains, but wouldn’t be able to completely take over.

“The Democrats could squeeze maybe 60 seats out of a good map,” Coleman says. “We’re a blue state, but we’re not like a New York or a Massachusetts. The Republicans are going to have a starting floor around 40 seats.”

Coleman also notes that rapid population growth in northern Virginia and the Richmond area will make life hard for Republicans moving forward. “Even with a fair map,” Coleman says, “I think the geography of the state would still lend itself to the Democrats.”

Whether or not the amendment passes, new maps will be drawn as soon as new census data becomes available. Ideally, the 2021 House of Delegates elections would take place under redrawn districts, but the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the census, meaning new lines—whether created by the legislature or the bipartisan commission—could go into effect in the 2022 congressional cycle. 

Whatever the result this fall, a new chapter of Virginia politics is about to begin.


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