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Tavorise K. Marks column: On Amendment 1, let’s say the quiet part out loud
Redistricting amendment

Tavorise K. Marks column: On Amendment 1, let’s say the quiet part out loud

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Over the past several months, there has been a growing debate within Black political circles about how our votes can be lifted to become more powerful. Much of this conversation has been around how Virginia draws its electoral district lines.

For context, every 10 years, all 50 states redraw their districts and the Virginia Constitution mandates that the General Assembly take on this responsibility. That means that politicians can pick and choose exactly who they want representing them for an entire decade.

In the conversations I’ve had, everyone seems to agree that politicians shouldn’t have free rein to pick their voters. It should be the other way around. Everyone is on the same page when it comes to making this process fairer and more transparent. But it gets trickier when it comes to the solution.

I support Amendment 1 on this year’s ballot because it is a straightforward way to help fix a system that we all agree is broken. If approved by voters, it would create a citizen-led commission to redraw our district lines in full public view. It is the best option to end partisan gerrymandering and actually gives citizens a voice in this important process.

But Black politicians are split on whether to support Amendment 1 and there are several who have hijacked this conversation, filling it with misleading scare tactics about what this measure would or would not do.

In some circles, this is all anyone wants to talk about. So instead of ignoring these tough conversations, let’s address them head-on. Sometimes it’s best to say the quiet part out loud.

For example, a lot of people are saying that we don’t need an amendment because House Bill 1255, sponsored by Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, already “banned gerrymandering.” That’s not true.

Article II of the Virginia Constitution still says that “electoral districts (are) established by the General Assembly.” So while Price’s bill to form a redistricting commission might have good intentions, it simply would make suggestions to the legislature about how the maps should look, but it’s nonbinding. Lawmakers can ignore these suggestions if they want, so nothing really changes.

To that point, some also think that we can trust Democrats to draw fair lines for Black communities. But history tells another story.

In the past, Democrats have worked with Republicans behind the scenes to pack districts with Black voters under the guise of fair representation. Through partisan gerrymandering, both parties create a small number of districts with more than 60% minority voters. But if Black communities were dispersed into a larger number of districts (with 40% or 50%), minority representation in the legislature would increase.

These “safe districts” don’t force political candidates to work very hard in order to get elected and re-elected. It’s a foregone conclusion. Put another way, districts like these are good for Black politicians, but bad for Black voters. Partisan gerrymandering like this dilutes our vote, plain and simple.

Finally, there’s a myth that there are no civil rights protections in Amendment 1. That is 100% false. Read it for yourself. The amendment says: “Districts shall provide, where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”

This clause essentially writes the federal Voting Rights Act into the state constitution for the very first time, no matter what the courts or Congress does with it in the future. This is enormously significant. And those trying to tell you there’s something to distrust about this amendment either are misinformed or trying to create confusion in Black circles.

My larger point is this: I am well aware that there’s a divide among some Black community leaders and politicians about the amendment, and that’s OK. Black voters aren’t a monolith.

Believe it or not, I’m happy that we’re at a point in our politics where Black advocates can disagree on things like this. People like Price and Dels. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, and Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, are entitled to their opinion, just as I am entitled to agree with every single one of the state senators in the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

I’ve read Amendment 1 countless times, and I side with Sens. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who said it would be “the single most significant step forward in making Virginia’s outdated and discriminatory redistricting process a thing of the past.”

Don’t think for a second that the Black politicians who oppose the referendum speak for all Black voices in Virginia. They don’t.

I would encourage Black voters to do what I did and come to your own conclusion. If you want a plan that will end partisan gerrymandering and force politicians to give people a seat at the table for the first time in our history, you should support Amendment 1.

We’ve been waiting 401 years for an opportunity like this. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Tavorise K. Marks of Chesterfield County is a civil rights leader in central Virginia and a former candidate for the House of Delegates. Contact him at: tavorise.marks@gmail.com

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