On The Ballot: Virginia Constitutional Amendments

After generations of gerrymandering, with legislators, rather than voters, attempting decide who should be in power, Virginians this year will have the chance to change the way voting districts are drawn—but opponents say the proposed solution is actually more of the same.

The first proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, Question 1, seeks to set up a redistricting commission of eight members of the General Assembly, and eight citizens.

The language on the ballot, which was crafted in the General Assembly, has been criticized as unfair and inaccurate, including in a Washington Post op-ed by Paul Goldman, a former Democratic Party of Virginia Chairman and a current candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. Goldman has sued the state over that language, which makes no mention of political parties.

In fact, the amendment enshrines political parties’ role in drawing districts, as well as locking out third parties from the redistricting process. The legislators are chosen by major party leaders, the eight citizens are drawn from lists created by party leaders, and the citizens are selected by five retired Circuit Court judges, four of whom were also selected by party leaders.

That commission would then draw the new voting district maps to send to the General Assembly. At least six legislative members and six citizen members must agree to the maps to approve them, as well as at least three of the four senators on the commission for the Senate districts, and at least three of the four delegates for the House of Delegates districts plan.

The General Assembly then must have a simple up or down vote on the maps, with no ability to change them. If the commission and General Assembly cannot pass a map by their deadline, the state Supreme Court draws the maps.

Supporters of the amendment, such as the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, and Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33), argue the new system would make voting districts more fair.

“As it stands now, without the change in our constitution, whichever party is in power in the General Assembly will be able to control the process for ourselves, literally choosing our own districts,” Boysko wrote in her newsletter. “Rather than have districts drawn by the party in power with zero visibility, the redistricting commission will include citizen members, transparency and public meetings.”

She also said the amendment would stop backroom deals. She wrongly claimed the amendment prohibits commissioners, commission staff, or any other advisor or consultant to the commission from communicating with anyone outside the commission about redistricting outside of a public meeting. That language does not appear in the proposed amendment. Instead, it holds that all records and documents including internal and outside communications are considered public information, making them accessible by Freedom of Information Act requests. Meetings of the commission would be open to the public, and it must hold three public hearings across the commonwealth before proposing maps.

The amendment’s opponents, including the Virginia NAACP and the Democratic Party of Virginia, argue it keeps political parties in control of the redistricting process and threatens to further disenfranchise minorities.

“We need to reform the system, not make it worse,” said Robert N. Barnette, president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. “Any redistricting amendment must include explicit and strong protections for Black voters and voters of color. Amendment 1 far misses the mark.”

The state NAACP pointed out the proposed language only calls for racial and ethnic communities to choose their own representation “where practicable.”

Democrats are split on the amendment. It was crafted in part with Democratic help and enjoyed broad Democratic support before the party took control of the state legislature—putting it in position to redraw the voting district maps during the next round. Now many oppose the amendment, including the state party.

But either under a new system or the old one, new voting districts will be drawn soon—the new maps will be drawn in 2021, with census data from 2020.

Disabled Veterans Could Get Car Tax Break

This year, Virginia voters will be asked whether the state constitution should be amended so that veterans with a service-connected, permanent and total disability will pay no taxes on their vehicles.

They would not receive any repayment for taxes paid previously, and the rule would be restricted to automobiles and pickup trucks. It would apply to veterans of both the U.S. armed forces and the Virginia National Guard.

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