We hate to say we knew it would happen, but we did.
And we told you so.
The Virginia Redistricting Commission, which was touted as a way to keep politics out of the redistricting process, has turned out to be a sore mess. It has failed in its mission to come up with new and fair boundaries for Virginia’s 100 House of Delegates and 40 state Senate districts, even after hours upon hours of meetings and bringing in high-priced consultants to help out.
Why did it fail?
We believe those who successfully pushed the state constitutional amendment last year that resulted in this debacle were wearing rose-colored glasses when they set up a commission with 16 members equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.
It was naïve to believe a redistricting commission would be a source of kumbaya and togetherness in the super-electrified political climate of the past four years and knowing that political control of the Virginia General Assembly is at stake.
Not only is there no way to break a tie under this new re-districting process, but now the redrawing of the lines is up to the Virginia Supreme Court, where a majority of the members were selected by Republican lawmakers.
What a disaster!
Just like a commission, putting redistricting in the hands of the court removes it even further from the people. In the past, redistricting has been done by members of the state legislature — the elected representatives of the people. If legislators make a mess of it, the people—the voters—can vote them out of office. Now, the people have no recourse to sanction the commission or the court.
We don’t believe advocates of this new redistricting system, such as OneVirginia2021, Fair Maps VA, the League of Women Voters of Virginia and the National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization, looked far enough down the road when they threw their support behind it. Yes, they all embraced and espoused the lofty goals of removing partisan politics and racial gerrymandering from the process and reducing the majority party’s ability to create districts that would keep themselves in power.
But experience has now shown all of us differently: Politics cannot be kept out of this process.
The Free Press, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, the state Democratic Party and Delegate Lamont Bagby, chair- man of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, opposed the constitutional amendment.
The Free Press based its opposition on several facts, chiefly that removing redistricting from the legislature, and turning it over to a 16-member commission, would result in fewer Black voices advocating for the interests of Black people.
We also took note of Delegate Bagby’s contention that the amendment contained no explicit instructions about minority inclusion and offered no protection against packing Black people and other people of color into the least number of districts, thereby diluting their overall voting strength.
We also saw the fallacy in believing that a commission or any other entity would be nonpartisan in its approach to redrawing the lines.
Politics and power were a part of this redistricting process from the beginning, and that will not change, even if the Virginia Supreme Court redraws the lines.
Laws are a distillation of our politics, so says Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy. We must stop pretending that courts are impartial arbiters of the law, he says.
So what’s the next step?
It will be up to us—Black people and people of color—to make sure our interests are best served under whatever maps are drawn. And if those interests are thwarted, we have a duty to challenge it in court.
Until then, we need people like Professor Kennedy and other critical thinkers to help us refine our system of redistricting so that it does meet our best interests and expectations for a more fair and inclusive future.