Former Virginia Gov. George Allen spoke about his experiences with gerrymandering and the importance of bipartisan redistricting at a standing-room-only town hall on Saturday.
The Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Albemarle County was one of five stops Allen is making with OneVirginia2021, a redistricting advocacy lobby, to educate Virginia residents about gerrymandering and urge for support of SJ 306. The resolution, which recently passed through the state Senate, seeks to amend the Virginia Constitution and create a bipartisan panel to draw districts.
Allen said gerrymandering is a bipartisan problem that adversely affects all Virginia residents.
“In our representative democracy, who ought to be making the decisions about our representatives?” he said. “I think it ought to be the owners of the government — the people — rather than the politicians picking and choosing who they want to have in their districts.”
Prior to Allen’s successful run for governor in 1993, the Republican politician had served as a member of the House of Delegates and then became the representative for the 7th Congressional District after winning a special election in 1991. However, weeks after his election, the 7th District was redrawn and Allen dropped from the race rather than face longtime Republican Rep. Thomas J. Biley.
After experiencing gerrymandering firsthand, Allen said he became assured of its all-too-real impact on fair representation.
In June, a panel of federal judges concluded that 11 state legislative districts were drawn in a way that discriminated against African-Americans and ordered a redesign.
A report presented in December and written by California professor Bernard Grofman contained several proposals for drawing new districts. Because redrawing the 11 districts will affect adjacent areas, Grofman told the court that up to 26 districts would need to be redrawn.
On Jan. 23, the federal court approved a redraw that appears to heavily favor Democrats by redrawing the lines of 26 districts and moving several Republicans into more Democratic areas.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal on the redistricting filed by House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, but last month denied a bid to delay the process. The court is expected to hear the case this spring.
On Saturday, Allen cautioned against allowing judges to decide on redrawn districts, urging for a committee as proposed in SJ 306.
“Just as bad as bureaucrats, or maybe worse, are federal judges drawing up districts in Virginia,” he said. “The current deplorable situation is that not only are federal judges drawing up Virginia’s districts because they’re out of compliance in a variety of ways, but the person advises the judges drawing Virginia districts is some professor from Irvine, California.”
Brian Cannon, the director of OneVirginia2021, urged attendees to contact their delegates and ask them to support SJ 306 now that the bill has crossed over from the Senate.
The commonwealth will redistrict in 2021, after the next national census, and passing SJ 306 is the first step to ensuring fair redistricting, Cannon said.
The proposed amendment seeks to create the Virginia Redistricting Commission, a 16-member group tasked with establishing districts for the United States House of Representatives and Senate and both bodies of the General Assembly. The commission will consist of eight legislative members and eight citizen members.
Of the eight legislators, four will be from the state Senate and four will come from the House of Delegates, with equal representation given for both major political parties. The citizen members will be chosen by a selection committee consisting of five retired judges of the circuit courts of Virginia. Six votes from the legislators will be required to pass a map.
SJ 306 passed the full Senate by a unanimous vote Thursday and now must pass through the House of Delegates. If it clears that hurdle, it must go through the General Assembly again in 2020 before it can be put before voters.
Cannon said he isn’t worried about support from residents, the overwhelming majority of whom he said support redistricting. However, a constitutional amendment requires support from the very people in power whom it could hurt.
“Nobody wants a bunch of competitive seats except for us, people who want a real choice at the ballot,” Cannon said. “This is not a left/right issue; this is a right/wrong issue.”
Joe Thomas, a radio host from WCHV, also spoke about the need for bipartisan redistricting at the town hall. As much as 25 percent of Charlottesville residents cannot find a job that pays them enough to live in the city, Thomas said, and they can feel unrepresented by elected officials.
“Those folks feel unrepresented,” he said. “You see it in their marches and their protests. It doesn’t matter what your political ideology is, there is a commonality that we feel unrepresented, and that has to be fixed if our representative form of government is going to find its way to its 500th anniversary.”