Ah, Virginia: “the birthplace of a nation,” land of Mount Vernon and Monticello, home of the hallowed Arlington National Cemetery… and site of some extremely unseemly behavior by Republican lawmakers, who have been fighting tooth and nail for the past seven years over state district lines.
Specifically, these lawmakers want to preserve the state map as it’s currently drawn – which is to say, weighted heavily in their favor, and weighted correspondingly against people of color (who tend to vote Democratic). Back in 2011, when they last drew up Virginia’s district and Congressional maps, legislators deliberately “packed” too many black voters into too few House districts (as in most states, it’s Virginia’s legislature that draws up these maps). The strategy enabled Republicans to maintain unbroken control of the state House, and almost completely constant control of the state Senate.
Inconveniently, the Law intervened. In June 2018, a US District Court found this racial gerrymandering unconstitutional, and ordered the lines redrawn by October 2018. The fractious legislature failed to complete the task, so it fell to a federally appointed “special master” to draft a remedial map by, oh dear, next week (December 7). GOP lawmakers have appealed a third time to the US Supreme Court to stay the process.
Similar shenanigans have unfolded at Virginia’s Congressional level, where again, despite Republican appeals, a US District Court found in 2015 that lawmakers had crafted a blatantly racially-gerrymandered Congressional map. Ordered to redraw the lines, the legislature balked, so a federal panel of judges took charge and unveiled a new map in 2016, at which point GOP lawmakers promptly re-petitioned the US Supreme Court for a stay. The appeal was denied; the redrawn map stands; justice trudges on. But it was a close call.
This, in a nutshell, is why it’s so important we elect progressive state legislators, because after-the-fact court orders do not necessarily guarantee fair voting results. In 2019, Virginia will be one of four states to hold general elections; in 2020, the US will hold its decennial Census, which will supply states with fresh population data; in 2021, state legislators will use that data as the basis for redrawing state maps. By supporting our alumni (hello, Jennifer Carroll Foy!) and backing new contenders, we have a real chance to effect fair enfranchisement in Virginia.
As the saying goes, “Virginia is for lovers.” Let’s help make Virginia for voters – all voters – too.
[Newsflash: fed up with their legislature’s combination of racism and obstructionism, a bipartisan group of legal experts and retired Virginia lawmakers is pushing for a state constitutional amendment that would re-allocate redistricting power from the legislature to an (as yet uncreated) independent redistricting commission. The amendment must pass the 2019 and 2020 General Assembly sessions, then voters must pass it in a referendum. Stay tuned.]
– Juliet Eastland