A vote on gerrymandering in Virginia could be more important than its Democratic primary

Voting about voting.
Voting about voting.
Image: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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Virginia, together with 13 other states and the territory of American Samoa, is an important battleground on perhaps the most important day of the Democratic primaries: Super Tuesday.

But while everyone will be waiting to see whether former vice president Joe Biden or Vermont senator Bernie Sanders—or maybe there will be a surprise showing from Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren—will win the day, another potentially more important vote will be held in Virginia’s state assembly.

State representatives will decide whether to pass a constitutional amendment that would enable redistricting and give the power to draw district lines to a commission under the state supreme court. The amendment, which already passed the senate with an ample majority, would allow districts to be redesigned in the state on the basis of the 2020 census result, with the aim of preventing the practice of gerrymandering. If approved by state lawmakers, residents would vote on the amendment in November.

Gerrymandering is the process in which districts are drawn to favor a certain political party. This is done by either “cracking” or “packing” a district. Cracking tries to separate the opposing party’s voters among many different districts, limiting their chances for a majority. Packing is the opposite. This entails drawing districts so that as many voters from an opposing party as possible are concentrated in a few districts, limiting their broader voting power.

Although it doesn’t immediately affect tomorrow’s presidential primaries, fair districting could impact future elections.

Aaron Barden, a legal and policy analyst at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, said that redistricting could reduce political polarization, and encourage more people to vote in general elections.

“The only elections that matter in gerrymandered districts are primaries,” he explained, because often the districts are so polarized that it’s only an issue of choosing the candidate, not the party. If the party of a district wasn’t decided ahead of time, voters might be more inclined to participate in the general election. Further, voters may be generally more involved in the election process, because they would feel their vote actually matters and the result isn’t predetermined by district lines.

During last year’s congressional elections in Virginia, voters got a look at the impact fair districting can have. Democrats won by a sizable majority a district that was re-drawn after a court order. Thanks to that seat, the Democratic Party gained the majority in both chambers of Virginia’s general assembly for the first time since 1993.

Some democrats, however, worry that the proposed amendment would give the power of re-drawing districts to the state supreme court, which is now controlled by conservatives, should the commission deadlock. Some members of the state’s black caucus, meanwhile, worry the language of Virginia’s amendment is not strong enough in its protection of minorities. Overall, the concern is that the constitution is being amended in a rush, and without enough care.

But the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which has studied the proposed amendment, along with other voting rights organizations, has written a letter endorsing the amendment, highlighting its urgency. In it, they note that Virginia would be the first amongst the states that require constitutional amendments to be initiated by lawmakers to pass a districting reform amendment. And it would put Virginians in a position to intervene on district lines in 2021.

Barden said the proposal only has until Saturday to pass in the House, otherwise it won’t make it to the popular vote in November, which is necessary for the state to actually amend the constitution.

The importance of the amendment, supporters say, goes beyond the immediate concern with Virginia. “Passage of the Virginia amendment would be an unmistakable sign that reform is viable in Virginia, viable in the South, and viable in the rest of the country,” the supporting organizations said in their letter.