The General Assembly passed a major redistricting reform resolution last month that for the first time includes citizens in the map-drawing process and overturns the previously hyper-partisan procedure. Both Republicans and Democrats after 2010 were accused of purposely diluting the voices of voters in order to take control of both houses of the legislature in a process that critics called “lawmakers choosing their voters.” The amendment, if passed by voters in 2020, would end the centuries-old practice that has granted legislators total control over voter populations and consequential election results.
Advocates of the compromise described themselves as overjoyed about this monumental amendment in a post on the OneVirginia2021 Facebook page.
“[We are] thrilled to report that the Virginia General Assembly has taken the first crucial step toward truly reforming the way Virginia draws its legislative districts… Make no mistake: This reform will end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia,” said a statement posted by redistricting advocacy group OneVirginia2021.
Geraty lobbying outside of the State Capital in Richmond with redistricting advocacy group, OneVirginia2021
The addition of citizens to the redistricting process was cheered by reform activists like Anne Geraty, of Crozet, who previously felt politically gerrymandered by politicians seeking reelection through ensuring safe districts voter-wise.
“I’m very excited. I think it’s a win for the people of Virginia and I think it’s a victory over people who want to continue partisan politics without regard to the other side,” Geraty said.
Geraty is a retired lawyer and school teacher whose liberal-leaning precinct has been included in a majority rural GOP district for a few years. She feels disenfranchised by this political misrepresentation and her Delegate Steve Landes, R-Albemarle who has allowed Western Albemarle to proceed as a conservative district.
Delegate Steve Landes, photo courtesy of The News Leader
“Currently my delegate pretty much does not vote my views or the views of the majority of the people who live around me ever. Not on gun control, not on redistricting, not on funding for education, not on anything. It’s almost not even worth contacting him because he’s not going to change his mind,” Geraty stated.
Geraty feels ignored by her representative who focuses his attention on the rural and hyper-conservative areas surrounding her precinct.
“The districts in Virginia are so gerrymandered that representatives really have no motivation to listen to their constituents other than just what they view as their base… and Steve Landes’ base is very conservative, rural people in the Shenandoah Valley,” Geraty stated, “People are increasingly feeling like they don’t have a vote because their representatives don’t listen to them. I personally think that gerrymandering is the thing that is undermining our democracy.”
Geraty’s House of Delegates district 25 that is rurally surrounded, photo courtesy of Virginia onAir
In addition to feeling alienated by the unrepresentative state assembly districts, Geraty feels her voice and the desires of the constituency were equally obstructed in the lines drawn for federal congressional districts.
“Prior to Landes, Tom Garrett, who was the representative of the United States House of Representatives for my district said off the record, that he didn’t care what people in Charlottesville think because they didn’t vote for him anyways,” Geraty explained, “So you feel really disenfranchised when people have that attitude about it.”
Redistricting reform has been blocked for years by legislators who rejected the idea of any citizen input in the map drawing process. Constitutional amendment SJ274 was introduced in January of 2019 and aimed to create a Citizens Redistricting Committee, made up of leaders in both houses as well as retired judges, but it ended up quickly dying in Committee. This amendment was followed by the introduction of Senate plan SJ306 and House plan HJ615 which make up the recently passed compromise.
Virginia state Capitol building in Richmond
Prior to the proposal of redistricting reform amendments, a federal court in Richmond ruled that 11 districts had been improperly and unjustly drawn based on race.
In 2014 12 Virginia voters claimed that the General Assembly violated the Equal Protections Clause when they drew legislative districts with a predetermined racial target that concentrated black voters into a small number of districts while diluting their voting strength elsewhere.
This lawsuit put pressure on legislators to agree to the redistricting commission that included citizens. Delegate Landes who ended up voting for the compromise previously opposed the inclusion of citizens for years arguing that district mapping is the job of lawmakers.
Landes speaking at a town hall meeting in Crozet, Virginia
“I’ve not been supportive of an independent commission, especially one that takes the legislature out of the process totally,” Landes said at a town hall meeting in Crozet in February.
Legislators who opposed redistricting reform resisted the inclusion of citizen map makers, calling the commission vague but those objections often sounded like code for a desire to preserve their political power.
“I’m not as supportive of the Senate version’s way they pick some of their commissioners. It’s –for lack of a better term–very convoluted and not very clear how that process would work,” Landes stated.
Senator George Barker, photo courtesy of the Virginia Senate.
Senator George Barker, D- Fairfax County, who proposed the inclusion of citizens said the reform will end the unfairness of political gerrymandering.
“The big problem we’ve had in the past is when one party is in power then it can manipulate the districts to their advantage and with this bill that won’t happen anymore… if the citizens say that this isn’t a good plan for the people of the commonwealth, then it doesn’t go forward,” Barker said.
The compromise was passed with an overwhelming majority in both the House and the Senate, leaving only 15 in opposition who were all members of the Black Legislative Caucus and felt that the amendment did not do enough to ensure minority representatives.
Jesse Frierson, picture courtesy of the Richmond Free Press
The Political Action Chair of the Virginia NAACP, Jesse Frierson, accused Republicans of creating white dominate districts that diminished the power of African American votes.
“They packed African Americans in districts in a way that maximized the number of majority white districts across the state. That’s what the primary goal was, many say it was…so they would maintain control of the General Assembly and that is what has occurred,” Frierson stated.
Although Geraty is not a victim of racial gerrymandering, she considers the current Virginia legislative districts illegal for their failure to meet size and shape requirements laid out in the Virginia Constitution.
Obviously gerrymandered House and Senate districts located outside Richmond and Northern Virginia, photo courtesy of OneVirginia2021
“I don’t think they comply with the Virginia Constitution which requires them to be compact and if you have looked at an electoral map of any of the districts, they look like fishing worms, they wiggle all over the place,” Geraty said.
OneVirginia2021 has led the fight for redistricting reform in Virginia for the last decade. The group is made up of politically passionate citizens who persistently lobby for ethical redistricting and more representative districts that eliminate politicians’ unfair ability to choose their voters.
Brian Cannon, Executive Director of OneVirginia2021, photo courtesy of Fredericksburg.com
Members of redistricting advocacy group, OneVirginia2021, gather before lobbying at the state capital
Executive Director of OneVirginia2021, Brian Cannon, has commanded the initiatives of the group. He sees Virginia as the leader in redistricting initiatives across the country.
“Things are changing right now. It’s not just in Virginia, it’s in states like Michigan, Colorado and Missouri. [It’s in] states that voted for Trump and states that voted for Clinton. It’s all over the board,” Cannon said.
Cannon is confident that this compromise brings Virginia closer than ever to ending partisan gerrymandering completely.
“The conversation is further down the pike than it has ever been and much more serious than it has ever been before,” Cannon said, “this will be likely the most redistricting reform any state legislature has ever pushed forward.”
Cannon sees the return of map drawing to citizens as giving them the voice they deserve.
“I think redistricting reform is fundamental to our republic and how it should function and I think gerrymandering is a distortion of that…when you distort these boundaries you distort the people’s voice,” Cannon stated.
Senator Creigh Deeds, photo courtesy of the Washington Post
Senator Creigh Deeds, D- Albemarle, is another proponent of the reconciliation of the two proposals. He recognizes and relates to politicians’ hunger for power but calls it an unjustifiable reason for legislators to oppose citizen inclusion.
“I think that as long as legislators are involved in the process, they’ve got a built-in conflict of interest,” Deeds stated, “People who have these jobs want to keep them and they have the opportunity to draw districts in a way that is favorable to the incumbents and people that have the job. That’s not always fair.”
There remain several procedural provisions, including another vote in the General Assembly as well as a statewide referendum both in 2020, but overall the compromise is a victory for OneVirginia2021 and citizens of Virginia.
Geraty feels more optimistic than ever about the permanent termination of gerrymandering.
“I feel like all that advocacy of the citizens had an impact which I had started to have my doubts about. The vote was overwhelming in favor of it. The grassroots that started with OneVirginia seems to have paid off,” Geraty said.
Today Geraty feels proud of her over a decade of lobby work and political activism.
Caroline Eastham and Anne Geraty and friend chat at the Capitol building during the OneVirginia2021 lobby day in Richmond
“It’s not just one impactful moment above all the rest. It is the growth of the support. I first started collecting signatures at polls in 2012… and there has been this steady growth of people who recognize what the issue is,” Geraty stated, “You no longer get the response ‘I don’t know what that is’ and more so the response ‘Yeah, I really believe in that, let me sign that.’”
The consensus among advocates is that this movement has the potential to end gerrymandering altogether.
“The process is transparent so if they’re giving consideration to how people vote and there’s language in the compromise that says that you can’t consider partisan consideration when drawing up the districts, then maybe it will take care of gerrymandering,” Geraty said.
The bill has to be passed in identical form next year, therefore few caveats remain beyond reconsideration in the General Assembly followed by the statewide Referendum in November of 2020. OneVirginia2021 and Geraty plan on continuing their redistricting advocacy until gerrymandering in Virginia is completely annihilated and citizens are given the power they deserve.