Among the events that happened in the 2020 election cycle, Virginians voted in support of a constitutional amendment establishing a bipartisan commission for redistricting across the state. The commission, which will be composed of both citizens and legislators, will draw congressional and district maps before submitting them for approval by the Virginia General Assembly.
The composition of the commission has faced some heat from various legislators and community advocates, with the Virginia NAACP citing the possibility for direct harm to Black and brown voters across the state. Because the General Assembly’s leaders select the legislators who will serve on the commission, as well as the five retired circuit court judges who will choose the citizen members from a list provided by the political leaders themselves, there is a strong belief that powerful politicians still control the process. And to complicate matters, there exists no requirement within the amendment to diversify the commission.
While advocates believe that this commission will provide transparency in what is normally a behind-closed-doors process, those who opposed the amendment are convinced that, because of the party leaders’ control, it is “enshrin[ing]” gerrymandering into law.
Gerrymandering has existed as far back as 1812, when the administration of then-Governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry approved a map outlining newly created state senatorial districts, which broke all the basic tenets of electoral apportionment. By law, districts need to be drawn to be compact, contiguous, and equally sized. Many states have blatantly broken these requirements and drawn irregular districts, like those seen in Maryland.
Generally speaking, gerrymandering is a political tool to maintain power. In the past, politicians have committed both racial and political gerrymandering. Racial gerrymandering is where districts are composed to either condense members of a certain race into a few districts or dilute their voting power by breaking apart areas of a high racial composition into many districts (also known as “packing” or “cracking,” respectively). Political gerrymandering works in the same way, with areas of a high percentage of an opposing party being manipulated to maintain the hold of the party in power.
While there exists a multitude of solutions to gerrymandering and equitable redistricting, independent commissions have become one of the most recommended paths forward. And, naturally, this solution has been implemented in some of the more progressive countries and states already.
In 1964, Canada began using independent commissions to draw their districts. In a 2018 article, the Washington Post compared districts from across Canada and the United States to highlight that even in Canada’s least aesthetically pleasing districts, their perimeters are still “much more compact and visually coherent” than those in the U.S.
State-side, California established the California Citizens Redistricting Commission following the passage of a 2010 ballot initiative by 61% of voters. While it put power back into the hands of the voters and created more compact districts, it did little to ensure more diversity across the state and rarely impacted the competitiveness of a given district. This, as noted by FairVote, is something that will need to be solved by additional protections, like proportional representation.
For Virginia, nonpartisan, independent commissions would relieve the process of elected officials all together. Having individuals with no professional stake in the outcome of the redistricting process would ensure that all voices are heard, no matter their race, political affiliation, or other societal identifier. Independent commissions in Virginia would prevent oddly shaped districts from being the norm and ensure every person’s vote holds equal strength under the law.
In the end, it is no surprise that when legislators are in control of drawing their districts, they compose them to secure their viability in future elections. In order to prevent the elected from choosing their electors, we must limit direct involvement by elected officials in the redistricting process. Requiring states to utilize independent commissions to draw their districts every 10 years would mitigate biased districts drawn to benefit the self-interested. And with many states like Virginia attempting to write redistricting commissions into law, it is imperative that nonpartisan, independent commissions be our chosen method forward.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.