In Virginia, Democrats Urge Voters To Reject Redistricting Reform They Once Backed A proposed amendment to Virginia's Constitution would change how voting districts are drawn every 10 years, but Democrats who long supported the cause are now urging voters to reject it.
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In Virginia, Democrats Urge Voters To Reject Redistricting Reform They Once Backed

In Alexandria, Va., Democratic precinct captain Paul Friedman urges voters to reject redistricting, while his fellow precinct captain Nancy Morgan says she is in favor of the amendment. Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU

At an early voting site in Alexandria earlier this week, two Democratic precinct captains approached the same voter, 46-year-old Frank McCarthy. They each made a case for how he should vote on Amendment 1 to the Virginia Constitution, but he got little clarity.

"Why are you saying yes and you're saying no?" McCarthy asked.

Nancy Morgan, a retired United Nations worker, said she voted for the amendment, which would create a commission of eight lawmakers and eight citizens to redraw Virginia's voting districts every 10 years. Right now, only lawmakers have that responsibility.

"I voted yes just because I feel that it's not a perfect bill, but it pushes us forward in terms of getting away from our legislators drawing the maps," Morgan said.

That was the position many Democrats used to hold on an issue that has plagued a number of states, changed the political makeup of many state legislatures, and prompted a Supreme Court ruling last year on what's fair and what's not in redrawing districts for state legislatures and congressional seats.

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In Virginia, for years Republicans controlled the General Assembly and Democrats complained they drew districts to give themselves unfair advantage and stifle the voting power of minorities.Last year, a federal court orderedthat several districts be redrawn because they were racially discriminatory. At the time, Democrats insisted that a broader change to how redistricting happens was needed.

Last year, Democrats flipped the General Assembly, and now some have changed their stance. The issue has become so hotly contested that the Alexandria Democratic Committee has no recommendation to voters on how to vote on the amendment, while the Democratic Party of Virginia printed a sample ballot urging voters to oppose it.

Steps away from Morgan, fellow precinct captain Paul Friedman, the director of a gun control advocacy group, showed voters that sample ballot and pressed them to vote no. He wore a sweatshirt that read "We voted — we won," a reminder of Democrats' growing power.

"The original goal of this project was to create an independent commission," he said. "And that's not what's been created in this amendment."

To change the Virginia Constitution, lawmakers must pass the same bill in two consecutive years with a state election in between, and then voters must approve it in a referendum. The vote this year is especially important because Virginia will redraw its maps next year using the results of the U.S. Census, and the new maps will stand for a decade.

Political scientist Lauren Bell at Randolph Macon College says the amendment was born in a time of political transition in Richmond. "Originally it was Democrats sort of pushing for this and Republicans agreeing as they recognized that they were about to lose control of the General Assembly," she said.

In 2019, Democratic Del. Marcus Simon, who represents Falls Church and Fairfax County, voted for the amendment. "It was the only option available at the time that looked like redistricting reform," he said.

Looking back, though, he says he's changed his mind. "This is a vote that I regret," he told WAMU/DCist. "I should have listened harder."

Redistricting advocate Brian Cannon with One Virginia 2021 says he is disappointed Democratic leaders including House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) are working to defeat the amendment at the ballot box after the General Assembly narrowly passed it a second time earlier this year.

"It's political opportunism," he said. "The majority party always opposes redistricting reform."

But some Democrats, especially African American lawmakers, opposed the amendment from the beginning. Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) said on a recent panel that a federal judge ordered her district be redrawn last year, and the experience convinced her that no lawmakers at all should sit on the redistricting commission. Further, she said the amendment does not ensure diverse voices will be a part of the commission. Aird hopes to convince voters to strike it down with a new political action committee, Fair Districts.

"We can do so much better," Aird said.

Republicans, meanwhile, have become ardent supporters of redistricting — after they opposed it for years.

"For too long, politicians have used redistricting in a way that's been completely self-serving and it's created a pretty darn broken system," Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) said on a Republican podcast.

A recent poll by Christopher Newport University finds 48% of voters support the amendment, and far fewer oppose it. In a twist, Democratic voters are more likely to support the amendment than Republican voters — which is the opposite position of each party's leadership. The Washington Post also endorsed the amendment as a step toward transparency after years when "voting districts were drawn in backrooms occupied exclusively by majority lawmakers."

In Alexandria, Republican voter Frank McCarthy said he had not given the amendment much thought before he arrived at the polls. He took a few minutes to read about redistricting — and voted yes.

"I just think it will be more fair process," McCarthy said.

If Democrats get to draw the next round of districts, he said he wants Republicans to have a seat at the table.

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