A proposed state constitutional amendment on the ballot in Virginia in the Nov. 3 election calling for a bipartisan commission rather than the governor and state legislature to decide on changes in congressional and state legislative districts has created a rift between Virginia’s four LGBT members of the legislature.
Gay State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and lesbian House of Delegates member Dawn Adams (D-Richmond) have spoken out in support of Amendment 1, saying it would be a major improvement over the longstanding system of having the legislature create the district boundaries.
But transgender State House of Delegates member Danica Roem (D-Prince William County) and gay House of Delegates members Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) and Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax County) have joined the state’s Democratic Party in expressing strong opposition to the proposed amendment.
“It pretends to be a reform measure but in reality it would enable gerrymandering to continue,” Levine told the Washington Blade.
He was referring to the longstanding process known as partisan gerrymandering where the political party in control of a state legislature shapes the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts in such a way that voters who support them outnumber the opposing party’s voters. The U.S. Constitution requires states to redraw congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years to conform to population changes calculated by the U.S. Census.
Ebbin and Adams have joined a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans who argue that Amendment 1 would create a 16-member commission on which four Democrats and four Republicans would serve regardless of which party has control of the legislature. Under the proposed amendment, four party leaders in the legislature – two Democrats and two Republicans – would appoint the eight legislators on the commission. The other eight members of the commission would consist of citizens appointed by a panel of five retired Circuit Court judges from lists supplied by the four party leaders.
The panel of judges would be appointed from a list created by the Virginia Supreme Court. Four would be chosen by the leaders of both parties in the legislature and the fifth would be selected by the judges themselves.
Under Amendment 1’s provisions, if 15 of the 16 commissioners agree, the state legislative maps they draw up for the districts go to the legislature, known in Virginia as the General Assembly, which must vote the district maps up or down without making any changes. If the General Assembly votes against the plan for the districts the commission must come up with one more proposal. And if that too is rejected by the General Assembly the State Supreme Court would create the new districts.
Levine and others who oppose Amendment 1 point out that because the four party leaders essentially choose the entire 16-member commission, the amendment “enshrines incumbent protection legislative gerrymandering in the Virginia Constitution,” as Levine describes it.
“Voters should choose legislators, not the other way around,” he told the Blade. He said he and other opponents prefer having an independent nonpartisan citizens’ commission draw the district lines rather than a commission entirely chosen by four legislative leaders.
Opponents of Amendment 1 also argue that the amendment as currently written would enable a few members of the General Assembly to reject the commission’s redistricting proposal, sending it to the Virginia Supreme Court, which was largely appointed by the former Republican controlled General Assembly. The court currently consists of six Republican appointed and one Democratic appointed judges.
The Washington Post, which endorsed Amendment 1 in an editorial on Sept. 27, says arguments against the amendment “amount to an attack on the good in the name of the perfect.” It argues in its editorial that it’s “highly unlikely” that the state Supreme Court would produce a redistricting plan as partisan and as one-sided as those produced by the legislature, which the Post says will conduct the redistricting if Amendment 1 is defeated.
But Levine points out that the now Democratic-controlled General Assembly this year passed legislation banning gerrymandering. He says the legislation prevents either side from using the redistricting process in their favor if Amendment 1 is defeated.