EVERY citizen of the commonwealth should have an equal voice in the election of those who govern and enact laws that affect their lives. That principle undergirds our democracy.
I don’t believe anyone would disagree with it.
But statements of principle are operationalized by human beings. And this is where it can get dicey.
If self-interest can alter an outcome, the result may not represent our finest hour. And that is where we find ourselves in the establishment of electoral districts in Virginia.
For all time, the majority political party, be it Democrat or Republican, has determined the shape of our electoral maps, working its will as the redistricting process unfolded. Over the years, there have been occasional strange-looking—some might say contorted—electoral districts.
Both parties have “owned” some of these anomalies. They occur when “logic leaves the building.”
It’s fair game to make the rules once you have become the majority party, but one might argue that it’s not fair game to make the rules that create the majority party. Allowing non-logical criteria to enter the equation when the majority party is being created can only bring a sense of distrust and cynicism from our citizens.
In addition, it contributes to pushing those who are elected into distant corners where compromise cannot thrive.
So, how do we get off this treadmill?
Applying the rule of law is the cure. The rule of law puts a check on self-interest.
A constitutional amendment now being considered by the General Assembly would apply the rule of law to drawing Virginia’s political map, rather than favoring the interest of any political party or incumbent. It would take the power to draw legislative districts away from the legislators themselves and give that power to an independent commission.
That would put the focus of redistricting where it belongs, on the citizens.
In 2021, using population changes recorded in the 2020 Census, Virginia will redraw the boundaries for all 100 House of Delegates districts, all 40 Virginia Senate districts and all 11 Virginia congressional districts.
Disputes and disagreements over district boundaries will never be eliminated. But having a nonpartisan standard applied will restore confidence in the outcome, and citizens will see the result as just and fair.
Representation is an issue of citizenship, not party. Legislative districts and seats in the General Assembly belong to the citizens.
After population is approximately equalized, criteria such as known community, continuity of interest, or common history and culture should determine district boundaries, not partisan arithmetic. Ending this process will support the policy of one-person, one-vote.
The proposed constitutional amendment will establish an independent, balanced redistricting commission made up of three Democrats, three Republicans and four independents. It prohibits drawing districts to favor any party or candidate, and it dictates that districts should follow city and county lines to the degree possible, and otherwise follow recognized boundaries such as mountains, rivers and major highways.
The legislature would have a role in choosing the commission members, but not in drawing the maps.
This approach was recommended by the bipartisan reform group OneVirginia2021, and the legislation will be carried by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Staunton, and Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton.
Changing the Virginia constitution requires a vote twice by the General Assembly, with an intervening election, and then a statewide vote by the people. Therefore, time is of the essence.
The 2019 General Assembly must take the first step now so the people can vote on it in November 2020.
Once the citizens have spoken, the rule of law, not self-interest, will govern when Virginia’s political map is completely redrawn in 2021.
John Chichester, the former president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate, represented the 28th Senate District from 1978 to 2007.