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Schuyler VanValkenburg column: It’s now or never on redistricting
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Meaningful reform

Schuyler VanValkenburg column: It’s now or never on redistricting

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In Rucho v. Common Cause, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent that partisan gerrymanders “deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process.”

It is on these grounds that the constitutional amendment to reform Virginia’s redistricting process represents real and significant progress. It also moves our state away from its sordid legacy of voter suppression. For these reasons, I am carrying the amendment in the House of Delegates and ask the rest of the body to pass it for a second time and send it to the voters for ratification.

The amendment does not set up the perfect redistricting commission, and can’t foreordain perfect maps. It is inherent in democratic compromise and in the nature of drawing district lines that it must be imperfect. But, in tandem with House Bill 758 — the enabling legislation — the amendment sets us on the path to a transparent process that creates maps that foster, rather than inhibit, democracy.

My Democratic colleagues have expressed some concerns with the amendment, and they need to be addressed.

First, if the 16-member commission deadlocks, map drawing would be taken over by special experts, also called “special masters,” appointed by the Supreme Court of Virginia. Some members of my party worry that the conservative-leaning court will pick a partisan special master who will gerrymander to benefit Republicans.

This concern is dealt with by HB 758, which requires them to pick two special masters who must both agree on the final map — one coming from a list generated by Democrats, and one from a list generated by Republicans.

Other members worry that the court will declare the guardrails put on them under HB 758 unconstitutional. This concern is dealt with in the Constitution. Article VI, Sections 1, 4, 5 and 8 make clear that the assembly may pass legislation to govern the processes and procedures of the court. The enabling legislation’s procedure for appointing special masters clearly falls into that zone, and does not constitute an unconstitutional infringement on the court’s authority.

Other members of my party worry that it might not create reform that ensures diversity and representational equity for all of Virginia’s communities. Representational equity is a crucial value for any fair districting process, and the combination of amendment and enabling legislation does successfully address this concern.

HB 758 specifically ensures racial, gender, ethnic and geographic representation on the commission itself and on the board of judges who help pick its eight citizen members. Further, the criteria that the commission must use to draw the maps explicitly protects minority communities and communities of interest.

Finally, the amendment itself states that districts must be drawn in accordance with federal and state laws that address racial and ethnic fairness. It even requires districts meet the requirement, established by the Voting Rights Act, that districts are drawn in such a way as to provide minority communities the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice where practicable.

Last year, Democratic candidates across Virginia made fair elections a part of their campaigns. We helped raise the issue of gerrymandering and fair representation from a high school civics vocabulary word to a prime concern of voters, and our party’s members in the state Senate already have done their part by passing the amendment and the enabling legislation needed to move the process forward.

Teaching high school government for many years, I have seen few issues students grasp onto more quickly than the unfairness of gerrymandering. When the gasps and laughs of seeing gerrymandered districts die down and we discuss how districts are carefully drawn to break up and dilute the influence of some voters and maximize the influence of others, their shock begins to show. Yet we as lawmakers seem paralyzed to curb something my students often simply characterize as “cheating with maps.”

Make no mistake, it’s on us to end this practice. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated it would do nothing to curb partisan gerrymandering. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was essentially pleading with the states to take up the cause, writing that gerrymanders “debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people ... enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters’ preferences ... promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will ... encouraged a politics of polarization and dysfunction.”

Let’s live up to our own high standards, our own campaign promises and Sotomayor’s call to action and pass meaningful reform now. We might not get another chance.

Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, represents the 72nd District in the Virginia House of Delegates and is a public school teacher. Contact him at: delsvanvalkenburg@house.virginia.gov

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