As he left the Chesterfield County registrar’s office last Friday afternoon after casting an absentee ballot for the Nov. 3 election, Glen Besa pulled out a sheet of white paper emblazoned with the phrase “Vote Yes on 1!” in blue block letters and “End Partisan Gerrymandering in Virginia!” in red.
The flyer was distributed by Fair Maps Virginia, a nonprofit created earlier this year by nonpartisan redistricting reform coalition OneVirginia 2021 to rally voter support for amending the state constitution.
Besa, a Chesterfield resident and longtime progressive activist, said he voted in favor of the amendment in Question 1, which would transfer authority for setting the boundaries of Virginia’s congressional and legislative districts from the General Assembly to a bipartisan 16-member redistricting commission made up equally of state legislators and citizens. Supporters of the amendment say the current process of letting the General Assembly draw its own districts gives an unfair advantage to whichever political party controls the state legislature.
Overshadowed, perhaps, by the contentious presidential campaign and congressional races, Question 1 – one of two proposed constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot – could have a profound impact on elections across the commonwealth long after this year’s votes have been tallied.
The redistricting commission amendment, which supporters contend is necessary to rectify Virginia’s long history of gerrymandered voting districts, has taken on particular significance because of its timing; the state’s political maps are due to be redrawn in 2021 and likely will remain in effect for the ensuing 10 years.
Besa and his wife, Tyla Matteson, have been volunteering with Fair Maps Virginia in the runup to the election, hoping to inform potential voters about Question 1 before they cast their ballots and convince them to support amending the Virginia Constitution.
“I’m a ‘small D Democrat’ before I’m a ‘capital D Democrat,’” he said. “I happen to know some capital D Democrats who would like to gerrymander now that they’re in charge. I’m urging people to vote yes on Question 1 so we don’t let Democrats or Republicans draw the maps for themselves.”
Besa and Matteson were among thousands of Virginians who went to the polls last Friday, the first day of in-person absentee voting in advance of the Nov. 3 general election.
By 8 a.m., there was already a line of prospective voters waiting outside the Chesterfield County registrar’s office that spanned the length of the Lori Road office complex, and its doors weren’t scheduled to open for another 30 minutes.
“People are really energized,” said Susan Beals, chairwoman of Chesterfield County’s three-member electoral board. “They’re excited about this election and want to make their voice heard, and we welcome it.”
The 2020 election is Virginia’s first with expanded absentee voting. Voters previously had to provide a reason, such as a disability or illness, to cast an absentee ballot, but the General Assembly changed the law last year to allow for no-excuse absentee voting beginning this fall.
Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a law authorizing localities to create satellite polling locations where people can vote early in person.
The General Assembly approved additional measures last month during the ongoing special session that expand the early voting window from seven to 45 days and allow voters to physically drop off their absentee ballots prior to Election Day.
Sample ballots for the 4th and 7th congressional districts can be downloaded from the registrar’s website at chesterfield.gov/689/registrar.
Should voters approve Question 1, the redistricting commission would include four Democratic lawmakers – two apiece from the state Senate and House of Delegates – and four Republicans, while the eight citizen members would be recommended by legislative leaders and appointed by a committee of five retired circuit court judges.
Districts drawn by the commission would still be subject to approval by the General Assembly. If the legislature balked at its proposed boundaries, the Supreme Court of Virginia would step in to lead the redistricting process.
“Although this bipartisan plan does not reflect every provision we urged in our original proposal, make no mistake: This reform will end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia,” said Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, following the General Assembly’s February 2019 vote to put the measure on the ballot statewide in November 2020.
At that time, there was broad support within both parties for creating the redistricting commission. Since then, however, Democrats have consolidated their hold on the top three statewide elected offices by winning majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since 1993 last November.
Virginia Democrats are now divided on the issue. At its virtual statewide convention in June, the Democratic Party of Virginia overwhelmingly approved a resolution rejecting the proposed constitutional amendment, on the grounds that it would give Republican legislative minorities and conservative Supreme Court judges too much authority in redrawing districts.
According to the text of the resolution, creation of the redistricting commission could result in “the loss of the Democratic majority in the House of Delegates as early as 2021 and the Senate by 2023,” while potentially leaving Democrats “unable to retake the majority in either body despite representing a substantial and growing majority of Virginia’s population.”
Jack Wilson, then-chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, called the resolution “a slap in the face to the thousands of Virginians that voted [Democrats] into office under the guise of fair redistricting.”
Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus oppose the amendment because they say it doesn’t guarantee people of color will be represented on the redistricting commission or explicitly prohibit racial gerrymandering.
Progressive Democrats launched a political action committee, Fair Districts, in August to rally votes against the ballot measure, which they contend will ensure that control of Virginia’s redistricting process remains in the hands of elected officials.
“There’s a false sense that this amendment is nonpartisan redistricting or independent redistricting, when the reality is it is neither,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, who represents part of Chesterfield. “We believe that voters should pick their representatives, not the other way around. To be able to make that happen, voters must vote ‘no’ this November and push for a truly nonpartisan and independent redistricting process.”
Advocates for Question 1 note the redistricting commission would be required to draw districts that comply with state and federal laws addressing racial and ethnic fairness, including the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.
State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, announced Monday morning he is forming a political action committee, Virginians for a Better Tomorrow, in support of the proposed redistricting amendment.
“Our only chance to put citizens first, instead of politicians, is to pass the constitutional amendment that creates a bipartisan, citizen-led, commission to draw new districts,” he said in a press release. “I helped lead the effort in the legislature to advance this to the ballot, and now I want to finish the job by making sure it passes.”