Why Redistricting Matters
“Gerrymandering” is a method of distorting representative democracy by allowing officials to select their voters rather than voters to elect their officials. When done for purposes of racial discrimination or to ensure the dominance of one political party, gerrymandering runs counter to equal voting rights for all eligible voters.
Every ten years, after receiving updated U.S. Census results, the Virginia General Assembly, our state legislature, updates the boundaries of election districts. This process of redrawing the election maps is known as “redistricting.”
When officials move more voters into one district than another, people’s votes can lose or gain weight. In Virginia, the legislators have the power to redraw their own district lines, as well as the districts of Virginia’s representatives to the U.S. Congress.
Politicians can “pack” communities of voters with similar interests into a single district or “crack” these communities apart, distributing them among several districts.
This “gerrymandering” determines how many votes in the legislature a community of interest may influence. It can amount to illegal voter suppression, as some communities gain disproportionate representation by lawmakers and others lose the ability to elect candidates who represent their interests.
Gerrymandering violates voters’ constitutional rights to equal protection under the law and freedom of speech.
At times, courts have ordered redrawing of election maps in Virginia in order to remedy illegal gerrymandering. Neither party has shown itself immune to the temptation.
In November 2020, Virginia voters gave final approval to a constitutional amendment that will change the way redistricting in the state is done going forward. The League of Women Voters supported the amendment.
When a state legislature draws its own election district lines, the process is ripe for abuse, even when inadvertent. Politicians drawing their own reelection districts may cement long term political power for themselves and their party by elevating or suppressing the value of people’s votes.
The new constitutional amendment establishes a new Commission of citizens and legislators, led by a citizen. This commission will draw the district maps instead of the full General Assembly. The Commission consists of eight legislators, selected by the General Assembly’s party leaders, and eight citizens, who were selected by retired circuit court judges from a pool of applicants submitted by the four party leaders.
In other words, this is a bipartisan commission. A study of redistricting outcomes in all 50 states determined that “both bipartisan political commissions and nonpartisan citizen commissions fare far better at preventing partisan gerrymandering than political redistricting in a state legislature.”
The Amendment, set forth here, also provides that districts shall be drawn in accordance with federal and state laws and court decisions addressing racial and ethnic fairness. In addition, it provides that the districts shall provide, where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.
In other words, the Amendment requires that the lines cannot be illegal racial gerrymanders.
An accompanying law provides that districts shall be drawn to give racial and language minorities an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and shall not dilute or diminish their ability to elect candidates of choice, either alone or in coalition with others.
This research also indicated that “when courts are forced to make redistricting decisions,” as is the case in at least nine other states, “they tend to prefer incremental incremental changes to the district lines, likely because they are [wary] of getting involved in political fights.”