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Deb Wake and Liz White column: Virginia’s redistricting process was messy, frustrating and complicated. It still worked.
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Redistricting in Virginia

Deb Wake and Liz White column: Virginia’s redistricting process was messy, frustrating and complicated. It still worked.

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Supreme Court of Virginia Building Sign, Richmond

By Deb Wake and Liz White

At a debate in 2020, Rep. Don Beyer, D-8th, was asked whether he supported Amendment 1, the referendum that would take redistricting power away from elected officials for the first time in Virginia history.

The congressman said he “very strongly support[s] it,” before delivering a hard truth.

“I was Lieutenant Governor for eight years, and the ugliest debates [during that time] were over the partisan redistricting where elected officials got to choose their own voters, rather than voters choose their elected officials.”

This admission didn’t surprise us. For years, our organizations — the League of Women Voters of Virginia and OneVirginia2021 — have worked to improve Virginia’s redistricting process in the face of significant political pushback. We have seen firsthand how difficult it can be to make progress when politics supersedes what is best for the voters.

It’s not hard to find examples of this in the work of the inaugural Virginia Redistricting Commission, which was marred by partisan infighting. When negotiations collapsed as deadlines loomed, many anti-gerrymandering advocates felt deflated — ourselves included.

But the process marched onward — exactly as designed — and in late December, the Supreme Court of Virginia unanimously approved new electoral boundaries for the General Assembly and U.S. Congress. This was the culmination of thousands of hours of advocacy from ordinary Virginians who agreed our redistricting status quo had been profoundly broken for generations, and there should be a good faith effort to repair it.

Even though there were times when Virginia’s new redistricting process was unquestionably messy, frustrating and difficult, it still worked.

For starters, it worked because of unprecedented public input. Throughout the past year, thousands of Virginians gave map-drawers feedback in real time — from emails to testimony at more than 50 public meetings to submitting 2,000-plus comments on various map proposals. This is a seismic shift when compared to the opaque handshake dealings of the past.

What’s more, the final maps openly and diligently considered this input, with the special masters’ memo even including an itemized list of changes made based on specific comments they received. This by far was the most transparent redistricting process Virginia voters ever have seen.

The process also was successful because the maps themselves are fair. And you don’t have to take our words for it. Virginia’s new districts have been lauded by a long list of nonpartisan analysts — including the Brennan Center for Justice, Campaign Legal Center, FiveThirtyEight, University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and Princeton Gerrymandering Project — that said Virginia’s new districts are among the fairest in America.

Based on this variety of datasets, it’s clear the maps pass four fundamental tests:

  • They accurately reflect Virginia’s partisan leanings and do not unduly favor one party over the other.
  • They are geographically compact by largely respecting municipal boundaries and communities of interest.
  • They are far more competitive than last decade’s districts.
  • They provide ample opportunities for minority voters to select the candidate of their choice by creating more minority-majority districts.

But while nonpartisan analysis tells us Virginia’s new redistricting process took a long road to a positive outcome, there still are those who look at the commission’s impasse as an indication that the process failed. And while there certainly are ways to improve redistricting in the future, we encourage Virginia voters to look at the past year in its totality.

We are reminded of those citizen commissioners who repeatedly said they do not consider Virginia’s redistricting reform efforts a failure, despite the stain of partisan gridlock on the commission’s work. We agree. In our eyes, true failure would have been to approach this process the same way we always have, hoping for a different result.

Everyone agreed on a problem that needed to be fixed in Virginia: Elected officials in the majority party had carte blanche to draw their own districts behind closed doors and without any meaningful citizen engagement whatsoever. And even though it gave us both a few new gray hairs along the way, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Virginia has taken a huge, unprecedented step to solve this problem.

Looking forward, we know more can be done to ameliorate some of the “ugly debates” surrounding redistricting, as Beyer put it. But as the dust settles on Virginia’s first meaningful attempt to end partisan gerrymandering, we can say with confidence that after long debates, thousands of public comments and more than a decade of advocacy, voters finally have maps they can be proud of. Isn’t that what this was about in the first place?

Deb Wake is president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia. Contact her at: president@lwv-va.org

Liz White is executive director of OneVirginia2021. Contact her at: director@onevirginia2021.org

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