By Phillip E. Thompson, Executive Director, National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization
Since the dawn of this republic, African Americans have been in a constant struggle to become fully vested in our right to vote. From being counted as three-fifths of a human being; to literacy test; to poll taxes; to the fight to ratify the 15thAmendment; to the historic signing of the 1964 Voting Rights Act; to being disenfranchised by an overzealous criminal justice system or restrictive voter ID laws; African-Americans’ right to participate in the governance of this country has constantly been challenged and denied.
In the 21st century, minority representation is also at risk due to gerrymandering, the practice of politicians drawing their own district lines to create a political advantage. Often times, this is done at the expense of Black lawmakers.
Many of the restrictions to African Americans’ free participation in the governance of this country have been removed by Amendments to the United States Constitution, Supreme and lower Court decisions and Federal, State and local laws.
However, racial and partisan gerrymandering continues to plague our status. Various schemes persist to disenfranchise African American voters by placing us in racially gerrymandered districts, thereby, diminishing the strength and importance of our vote.
However, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a State steeped in a history of racial gerrymandering, a movement has grown to turn the page on this form of voter disenfranchisement.
Last year, by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate voted to approve a Constitutional Amendment designed to end partisan and racial gerrymandering in the Commonwealth.
The Amendment included the following historic language:
Every electoral district shall be drawn in accordance with the requirements of federal and state laws that address racial and ethnic fairness, including the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, and judicial decisions interpreting such laws. Districts shall provide, where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.
Besides finally enshrining these protections into the Virginia Constitution, the Amendment removes the business of drawing voting districts from the backrooms of the General Assembly where politicians were able choose the citizens they wish to represent. The plan would appoint a bipartisan commission to draw fair districts in full view of the citizens of the Commonwealth.
Virginia law says that Amendments like this need to be passed in two consecutive years, so it again comes before the General Assembly, mostly made up of the same individuals who almost unanimously approved it in 2019. If approved, it will be on the ballot this November for approval from to the ultimate arbiters of democracy: the citizens of Virginia.
After sailing back through the State Senate by a near unanimous vote; a strange thing happened on the way to final citizen approval: the Democratic leadership in the House of Delegates has seemingly refused to take up the Constitutional Amendment.
A small number of Democrats are pushing their own legislation to create an advisory commission with that won’t legally bind the legislature to use their suggestions. They also say that a better solution is on the way in the coming years.
But this plan is not fool-proof and has one major flaw: Democrats may not stay in power long enough to draft their so-called better idea.
Thus, instead of Virginia voters being able to make their own decision on whether they want constitutional protections now, the Democrats are asking African Americans, the long-time victims of racial and partisan gerrymandering, to bet our voting rights on their continued electoral success.
Anyone with even a limited understanding of politics in Virginia knows how much of an impact the present occupant of the White House has had on recent state elections. Just ask the Republicans. What if he’s not President after 2020?
Here’s the bottom line: African Americans and other minority voters deserve the right to be able to vote on permanent constitutional protections.
We all know that the rights African Americans enjoy as citizens are a direct result of Constitutional Amendments. With the federal Voting Rights Act on life support, putting these vital protections into the Virginia Constitution will also ensure its protections in the Commonwealth.
The Democrats owe African Americans protection from even the specter of racial gerrymandering. A Constitutional Amendment will provide that protection. But, if we as citizens do not inject ourselves into this debate now, we will not get our chance in November to be the final arbiters on these constitutional protections.
If the Democrats in the House of Delegates are so confident that their law will provide better protection than this Constitutional Amendment, then pass it and the Amendment and then let the people decide.
When did Democrats stop trusting the will of the people? If we allow this backroom deal to take our right to vote, then that is our fault. Tell your representatives to let you decide what is best for you.