Opinion Pieces

OP-ED: Virginia Democrats now have the power and responsibility to fix gerrymandering

Virginia Democrats now have the power and responsibility to fix gerrymandering

By Rep. Don Beyer - 01/02/2020 

Across the country, people are talking about election reform.

It’s not hard to figure out why. In all my years in public service, I’ve never seen our political institutions tested as they are now. Hardened partisanship and vitriol rule our collective public discourse, and both are driven by a practice that contributes to waning faith in our democracy: gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is cheating. It allows politicians to select their voters, when it should be the other way around. It creates and is reinforced by gridlock, creating noncompetitive seats that have more incentive to satisfy the partisan litmus tests of primary voters rather than solving problems.

Nearly 90 percent of all congressional seats going into the 2020 election are safe for incumbents. Congress has an approval rating in the teens, yet nearly everyone gets reelected again and again.

We can break this cycle by passing election reform. That’s why I have proposed the Fair Representation Act in the past two sessions of Congress. It would put an end to the single-district, winner-take-all elections that have pushed our politics to the extremes. My bill would create multi-member districts and empower citizens with ranked-choice voting. Districts would be bigger, so individual lines would matter less, and they’d be crafted by truly independent commissions.

We have some work to do to convince politicians that we need dramatic change, but I do have good news and progress to report: Virginia is poised to take substantive action on redistricting in 2020.

The General Assembly overwhelmingly passed the “first reading” of a bipartisan constitutional amendment proposal in February. By law, a Virginia constitutional amendment needs to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions, at which point it would be put on a statewide ballot for a referendum next November.

If this proposal is approved, Virginia would make history in creating the commonwealth’s first redistricting commission — a plan that would finally include citizens at the table when legislative lines are drawn after the 2020 Census.

What’s more, the commission would require publicly available data for all meetings and a supermajority of members for approval of district maps. Put simply, this amendment is an enormous improvement on the undemocratic system Virginia has had for centuries.

In my career, I’ve seen redistricting abuses on both sides of the aisle. What happened in this past decade, however, cost taxpayers millions in legal fees and cheated voters out of fair representation in Richmond. Racial gerrymandering is an assault on civil rights.

Now that the Democratic Party has regained the majority in both legislative chambers, we have both the power and the responsibility to make a good-faith attempt to solve many of these problems and make things better. We must not allow illusive, short-term benefits to outweigh the clear moral imperative to do the right thing.

Some fellow Democrats have found faults with the proposed amendment, including the provision that would send a gridlocked commission’s map to the Virginia Supreme Court to serve as arbiter. But this mirrors a requirement in my very own Fair Representation Act, which sends maps to a panel of judges in the event a redistricting commission is not enacted on the state level. It may not be perfect, but the flaws are fixable.

The incoming majority should pass additional legislation that improves the amendment. These additional bills should include provisions requiring diversity on the commission itself, clear criteria to keep existing communities together, stronger regulations to prevent all definitions of gerrymandering while new district lines are being drawn and a robust set of rules in the unlikely event of gridlock.

My hope is that the political dynamics will allow this comprehensive reform package to move forward. The extreme gerrymanders of this decade, driven by technology, are more dangerous and harder than ever for citizens to overturn at the ballot box. We need a break from the past and a fresh, fair start.