They’re stories local voters know well, but they bear repeating.
The confused line of the 17th and 28th Virginia house districts, which bisect the city of Fredericksburg, resulted in voters casting ballots in the wrong election last November, and left officials scrambling to figure out why.
And a quick drive from the city down State Route 3 leads to Culpeper, a town of 18,000 that is represented by three different legislators. A district line lies on top of Open Door Baptist Church on that thoroughfare, literally through its... open door.
Both examples were relayed by Brian Cannon, OneVirginia2021’s executive director, to an audience of almost 50 who gathered at the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Fredericksburg Friday afternoon for a town hall meeting, part of the “Reform Virginia” legislative campaign of OneVirginia2021, the nonpartisan redistricting advocacy organization.
Former Virginia Gov. George Allen headlined the event, which kicked off a five-city town hall tour of the state to discuss the need for nonpartisan and transparent redistricting reform during this year’s General Assembly session.
This week, bill SJ306, which the group backs, passed the Senate. It would create an amendment to the Virginia Constitution to create an independent commission to redraw districts for the U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia Senate and House of Delegates in 2021 after the Census. It goes to the House next for approval.
Allen said “now is the time” to pass this reform. He said if it is not passed in this session, lines will be drawn again after the 2020 Census by legislators rather than an independent commission, and “we will be stuck with districts that... look like spaghetti thrown on the map of Virginia.”
The Republican experienced first-hand the woes of redistricting when the lines of the 7th Congressional District, which he represented were redrawn in the early 1990s, two weeks after he took office.
“I live in a log house on a gravel road at the foot of the Blue Ridge,” he said about his district being redrawn to include parts of Richmond. “I didn’t want to move, it wasn’t right.
He ceded the seat to the other representative who lived in the redrawn district and went on to run in the next gubernatorial election, which he won.
In his first State of the Commonwealth address, he said he “would have been happy to be in the House” but the move prompted him to run for higher office.
It was during that same redistricting that Fredericksburg was made a part of the 1st Congressional District and removed from the 7th.
During the town hall, Allen took a question from Marcia Keener of Fredericksburg.
She described the city as “a community broken up” with split precincts.
“There is no one voice in Fredericksburg,” she said. “It’s driving me nuts.”
Allen called for a bipartisan solution to the issue. He and Cannon pointed out that when districts were redrawn in 2001, there were 75 split precincts. In 2011’s redistricting, that number went up to 224 split precincts.
He said if this legislation fails, Virginians are in for another 10 years of similar frustration from “creative cartography.”
Preston Thayer, also of Fredericksburg, asked about related issues affecting voters. He asked if the former governor agreed that representative democracy is also hurt by “corporate financing of elections, xenophobic immigration laws and voter suppression.”
Allen said he didn’t agree with the characterization of issues, but thinks reducing gerrymandering will make voting fairer for all. He said, also, that he appreciated that the crowd was clearly not made up of only his fellow Republicans.
“That’s why there are a lot of frustrated voters,” he said. “They don’t see government keeping the promises of working collaboratively ... There’s no way government gets anything done without working with the other side. It gets things accomplished and what is accomplished is more likely to endure.”
He characterized the recent government shutdown as a similar failure of leadership and said: “People want representation that works together.”
Allen said he hopes the crowd took away from the discussion that decisions need to be made on the merit of an idea, not personality or politics.
One of those ideas is inherent in the redistricting legislation that is currently being discussed, which he called “historically important.”
With the 400th anniversary of founding of the House of Burgesses in Jamestown this year marking “the oldest representative democracy in the western hemisphere,” he said it’s the right time “to make Virginia a more perfect commonwealth.”