In 2017, Virginians chose Democrats to represent them in the state’s House of Delegates by nearly 10 points over Republicans. By historical standards, that’s a rout. And yet, when the dust settled, the GOP had retained control of the chamber, thwarting the voters’ will.
The prime reason for the skewed outcome was gerrymandering. At the start of the decade, both parties had combined to draw the House map so as to protect incumbents first and foremost by ensuring that as many as possible would run in safe districts. The map also turned out to have a strongly pro-Republican tilt, all but guaranteeing the GOP retained control even when voters preferred Democrats.
But this month, Old Dominion voters ensured that the next redistricting cycle, which starts next year, will produce a much fairer result. By a nearly 2-1 margin, they approved a ballot initiative, backed from the start by Arnold Ventures, that amends the state’s constitution to end partisan lawmakers’ exclusive control over redistricting, creating a bipartisan panel of citizens and legislators to run the process. The measure represents the most comprehensive redistricting reform adopted by any southern state. And, coming after several similar wins in other states in 2018, it offers the latest evidence that Americans of all parties are uniting in demanding maps that accurately reflect the will of voters and promote competitive races.
“For Virginia, this is the seat at the table in the redistricting process that we’ve been fighting for for generations,” said Brian Cannon, Executive Director of Fair Maps VA, the Arnold Ventures grantee that led the effort.
The Fight for Fair Maps
Cannon isn’t kidding. Back in February 1982 — a month before Cannon, 38, was born — Delegate Ken Plum introduced a redistricting reform measure. Democrats, who controlled the chamber, “pretty much laughed him out of the committee room,” Cannon said. Today, Plum is the longest-serving member of the House of Delegates and remains a staunch backer of reform.
After that, the issue faded for decades but gained new attention thanks to the extreme gerrymanders of the last cycle. In Virginia and several other large states, including Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, partisan lawmakers used their control of the redistricting process to entrench themselves in power, tilting election outcomes, and depriving many voters of a real choice in who represented them. The end result was to thwart needed policy reforms on everything from health care to gun safety to criminal justice. That’s because, with re-election all but assured thanks to the maps, many lawmakers had little incentive to be responsive to their constituents’ needs.
For Virginia, this is the seat at the table in the redistricting process that we’ve been fighting for for generations.Brian Cannon Executive Director of Fair Maps VA
In response, an array of state-level organizations sprouted across the country to fight for fair maps. One Virginia, the parent group of Fair Maps VA, was founded in 2014, and the following year it began educating Virginians about the need for reform — including by sending volunteers to the polls to engage voters in conversations after they cast a ballot. Before the pandemic, someone also had the idea of sending volunteers to the Fairfax, Va. DMV, which often had long lines of bored Virginians willing to talk.
“Our strategy was to inform good volunteers and set some basic parameters, but then let them go and do whatever works,” said Cannon. “It’s been a really awesome grassroots movement from the beginning.”
Withstanding Shifting Political Winds
The campaign also managed to navigate the shifting political winds. House Democrats, who were victimized by the last cycle’s gerrymander, had staunchly supported reform. But in 2019, after another decisive victory at the polls, they eked out a narrow majority, giving them full control of state government. Soon after, hoping to protect their ability to conduct a gerrymander of their own in the upcoming redistricting cycle, they flipped to opposing reform. Meanwhile, for the same reason, House Republicans made the opposite journey, from opposition to strong support. In the end, though, the campaign won over voters of all stripes. Majorities supported the measure in every locality but one, from deep red to deep blue parts of the state.
“Given the pushback from Democrats in the Legislature, the fact that voters still voted for it pretty overwhelmingly suggests there’s a lot of popular support for reforming redistricting practices to make them more fair,” said Sandra Chen, a legal researcher with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, another Arnold Ventures grantee.
The victory means that, soon after the results of the Census are released next year, a 16-member commission will convene to draw state legislative and congressional maps, made up of four legislators and four citizens from each party, with the citizens chosen by a selection committee of retired judges. For a map to be adopted, it will need to be supported by at least six of the eight citizens and at least six of the eight legislators — meaning at least four members of each party. Maps then will need to be signed off on by the Legislature, as a final backstop. Importantly, the commission must adhere to strong transparency rules, making it harder to manipulate the process behind closed doors. And, after the last set of maps was found by a court to have reduced the voting power of black Virginians, the new law includes strong protections against racial discrimination in redistricting.
Reform Elsewhere in the Country
Virginia isn’t alone in seeing a successful, people-driven movement to fix the system. In 2018, voters in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, and Utah approved redistricting reform ballot initiatives — by overwhelming margins in the first three states. Though Missourians this month narrowly approved a troubling new initiative that once again puts lawmakers in the driver’s seat, it was revealing that the measure’s backers misleadingly portrayed it as an additional reform, understanding that voters want fairer maps.
Chen noted that six other states — a mix of red and blue: Arkansas, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Oregon — saw campaigns to put redistricting reform on the ballot come up short in 2020, thanks in some cases to the pandemic putting a damper on signature gathering. They look set to try again in the future. There are also reform efforts underway in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, and Tennessee, Cannon said. Even in Washington D.C., the first piece of legislation passed by the newly Democratic House of Representatives in 2019 was a sweeping democracy reform bill that included curbs on gerrymandering — a measure of the national momentum behind the issue.
A Looming Threat
One threat that looms: In 2015, the Supreme Court narrowly rejected a bid to strike down redistricting commissions that cut state lawmakers out of the process. Some reformers fear that, with three new justices since then, the court could rule the other way if the issue comes back, as it could. But Virginia’s reform appears safe because it includes a role for the state Legislature — first, the ballot measure was initiated by a vote of the legislature, and second, maps require approval from state lawmakers on the back end. As a result, it could serve as a model for other states looking to ensure their reforms are safe from constitutional challenge.
For now, though, advocates like Cannon are turning to the question of which citizens and lawmakers will sit on the commission. There’s plenty more work to be done, but thanks to this month’s victory, the Virginia constitution will guarantee a redistricting process that prioritizes voters, not politicians.