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Virginia’s Approach to Government Accountability

Despite the top three elected Virginia State Democrats generating national headlines for being accused of past racist or even criminal behavior, a movement to reform their democratic process continues to grow. These efforts can use three tools for making structural changes in government: the initiative process, court rulings and electing new public officials.

Virginia does not have the first option. Citizens can only vote on a specific institutional change when their General Assembly (their Senate and House chambers) brings a state constitutional amendment to a vote of the people. Virginia, like a number of other states, has a constitution that is very prescriptive. Consequently, what may be handled as a legislative solution becomes a constitutional amendment, which is a three-step process: it must be passed by two sessions of the General Assembly, followed by a vote of the populace. Despite an arduous journey, constitutional amendments are voted on regularly, most of which are non-controversial.

Their General Assembly completed its annual session in February. On the last day they overwhelmingly approved a a ground-breaking amendment to establish a bi-partisan Redistricting Commission to draw legislative and congressional maps. Next year’s General Assembly must vote on it again before it is placed on the ballot as a referendum during the November 2020 election.

The proposed Commission will have 16-members, eight legislators (four Senators and four Delegates, with equal representation between the parties in each chamber) and eight citizen members (selected by a committee of retired circuit court judges from lists submitted by majority and minority party leadership in each chamber).  The Commission’s redistricting plan must then be approved, without any amendment, by a majority vote of their General Assembly’s two chambers and if passed cannot be vetoed by the Governor. The new boundaries would be in place for the 2021 state district and congressional races, which could shift the control of either chamber or both from the Republicans to the Democrats.

Brian Cannon, Executive Director of OneVirginia2021, was very enthusiastic about the proposed amendment, saying that “This is the most comprehensive reform ever passed through a state legislature.” OneVirginia2021, believed that powerful computerized mapping tools and detailed demographic data in the past had turned district boundary mapmaking into a weapon to keep the party in power from being elected out, as well as giving incumbents the advantage over outside challengers.

Although OneVirginia2021 has a budget under a half-million, with donations averaging $100, they have created 10 regional chapters and garnered over 1,000 core volunteers to collect 100,000 petition signers to support an independent redistricting commission, which would use a transparent process and clear rules that protect communities. They then laid out, in Brian’s words, “a close-to-perfect kind of plan that we thought they (the General Assembly) could use. It served as a marker, though we are far from perfect in what we got.”

Another grassroots organization, the New Virginia Majority, has also played an instrumental role in pushing for redistricting reforms. Jamaa Bickley King, the board chair of NVM has been quoted as saying “While various plans have been put forward, we at New Virginia Majority believe that the only way to remedy the blatant racial discrimination that took place is to ensure a new map maximizes the voting power of minority communities.” NVM hired a national data firm, TargetSmart, to construct a map that respected communities of color and communities of interest and introduced it to the General Assembly as an alternative redistricting map.

Although appreciative of what the General Assembly proposed, Tram Nguyen, Co-Executive Director of NVM, still has concerns, which she believes should be addressed in next year’s legislature’s session. They have introduced redistricting criteria legislation to provide clearer district guidelines and make-up of the commission. Nguyen says, “We must make sure the voices of racial and language minority populations are not ignored in this process.” These clarifications of the proposal would be administrative guidelines, and hence could be passed by the General Assembly without violating the rule denying any amendments being made to what was passed this year.

While both NVM and OneVirginia2021 pushed for an independent commission to draw the districts instead of legislators, they didn’t get that since legislators compose half of the commission membership. However, they strongly approved of commission’s transparency provisions. Those elements consist of requiring the commission to have open public meetings and to hold at least three public hearings in different parts of the Commonwealth, and to have all records and documents associated with the Commission’s work be available to the public. These measures provide community organizations to mobilize residents to express their support or displeasure on the administrative rules that will guide the commission’s operations.

The Republican controlled legislature was motivated to create the commission after they lost 15 house seats in the 2017 elections, when they had said they expected to lose no more than five. They were facing a real possibility, and still do, that the Democrats could control the General Assembly and use gerrymandering to their own advantage just as the Republicans had been doing.

Those electoral victories were due in large part to the efforts of the New Virginia Majority registering 140,000 new votersthe prior year. By targeting low voter turnout communities, like people of color and young people, and lower income folks of all color, they helped overwhelming defeat the Republican backed “Right-to-Work” constitutional amendment at the polls in 2016, winning the vote in every county. NVM continues to register voters and is expecting that their “get out the vote” effort will result in several hundred thousand new voters in 2020, when the constitutional amendment creating the redistricting commission comes on the ballot.

Winning elections is more than just increasing the number of voters, it’s about reflecting the public’s wishes. The desire for more accountability is a non-partisan issue. The Brennan Center for Justice reported that a poll taken last December by Virginia’s Wason Center for Public Policy found that 78% of Virginia voters support a constitutional amendment to create a non-partisan redistricting commission. But the message must be delivered with bipartisan support because past polling has shown that the public is suspicious of political parties using democratic “reforms” to promote their own advantage. Although an all citizen independent redistricting commission would probably receive the most public support, this one’s bi-partisan structure will likely be seen by voters as moving in the right direction, particularly if there are good administrative guidelines.

It is also critical that the public’s wishes be informed of their constitutional rights, which ultimately are determined by the courts. It’s about safeguarding our liberty. The initial force that made Virginia’s elections more accountable to all citizens resulted from a Federal Court ruling in 2016, which found that their Congressional boundaries were discriminatory against black communities. New boundaries used in the 2018 election resulted in 3 of the 11 seats in Congress flipping from Republican to Democrat. A separate court decision in 2017, came to that same conclusion for state house seats and over 20 house district boundaries were redrawn.

Democracies do not sleep. They are dynamic organizations, pushed by technical innovations, demographic fluctuation, and economic cycles. These all contribute to improving or hindering citizens access to the polls. For that reason, it is necessary to continually evaluate if voter access is being maximized. After redistricting, it is the next challenge that state governments must move onto. In Virginia’s last General Assembly sessionfour automatic voter registration bills failed in committee, as did six no-excuse absentee voting – early voting bills and seven vote-by-mail ones. If the democrats have a majority in either chamber, it will be incumbent upon them to take up and pass these measures where they can.

There is no final victory in keeping our democracy alive, there is only a constant diligence to care for it, or else it will slip away.

 

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