New student group supports redistricting reforms
OneVirginia2021 brings campaign to reform gerrymandering to Grounds
Three University students are establishing a Contracted Independent Organization on Grounds this fall in support of redistricting reform.
Current redistricting laws in Virginia mandate legislators redraw district lines every 10 years following the decennial census, and OneVirginia2021, founded in February, hopes to keep this timeline but use an independent commission to draw the district lines rather than the current legislative process.
To bring the initiative closer to students, fourth-year College students Patrick Charlton and Catherine Valentine established a CIO along with Batten graduate student Ann Laurence Baumer. All three worked as OneVirginia2021 fellows during the summer.
“We hope to engage students in the redistricting process,” Charlton said. “The organization will work to help educate the students at U.Va. and the surrounding areas of the redistricting process and our solution.”
The emerging CIO, still in the process of being approved by Student Council, aims to garner student perspective and support on redistricting reform. Charlton said the group will emphasize the need to end gerrymandering and force politicians to be more representative of their home districts.
“We will be organizing and participating in educational outreach as well as hopefully partnering with other civically-engaged organizations here at U.Va.,” Charlton said.
Both University undergraduate students and graduate students at the Batten school attended the first meeting Monday evening in New Cabell Hall. Group leaders gave a presentation to new members on the purpose of the campaign and potential solutions to the problem of redistricting within Virginia.
Baumer emphasized OneVirginia2021 as a grassroots, statewide organization that is intentionally nonpartisan.
“The ultimate goal is, instead of politicians drawing lines, we want an independent commission to draw district lines,” Baumer said.
Under current redistricting laws, most states require both houses to approve the proposed district reformations. The governor then signs the changes into law by the governor. Supporters of the OneVirginia2021 campaign argue the process enables gerrymandering.
“Under the Virginia constitution, legislators get to draw their own districts with criteria that they have created, therefore choosing their own constituents that make up their district and creating safe seats to maintain a partisan majority,” campaign Executive Director Matt Scoble said.
Charlton said politicians holding seats attempt to keep incumbents in power and increase that power through creative drawing of district lines.
“They divide communities and create maps that do not allow the concerns of Virginians to be heard,” he said. “The protected districts have become uncompetitive in general elections.”
Scoble cited a 2013 case where 56 Virginia House of Delegates candidates had no competition from a majority party challenger and only 19 were considered competitive.
“All that time, money, and energy was spent on two seats changing,” Scoble said. “Legislators pander to the their party’s base to make sure they win the primaries instead of focusing on major issues and problems.”
Center for Politics Spokesperson Geoffrey Skelley agreed the present system allows legislators to control the makeup of votes in their respective districts. He cited the most recent round of redistricting in Virginia as an example of such manipulation.
“The state’s 11 U.S. House districts all became safer for the sitting incumbents, with most Republican seats becoming more Republican and all Democratic seats becoming more Democratic,” Skelley said.
The OneVirginia2021 campaign, which aims to shift the power of redistricting from legislators to constituents, includes a foundation and a campaign. The foundation, headed by former member of the Virginia House of Delegates Shannon Valentine, focuses on education and awareness. The campaign itself is an advocacy organization.
“We want to make sure that people know how the redistricting process works and increase civic participation,” Scoble said. “Our goal is to implement a Virginia constitutional amendment that will take the redistricting process away from legislators and leave power with constituents. Seventy-four percent of people support this effort of establishing an independent commission.”
Supporters of OneVirginia2021 claim the modified system will remedy the problem of gerrymandering in Virginia, thus eliminating political polarization in Virginia. According to the campaign website, “partisan redistricting is a major factor in the polarization we see in the U.S. Congress and in the Virginia legislature.”
Skelley said gerrymandering exacerbates political polarization to some extent, but he does not think it is the primary reason for polarization.
“Too often reform proponents claim that fair redistricting will somehow be a silver bullet for the country’s political polarization, but that’s simply wrong,” Skelley said. “Polarization is driven by larger forces, particularly demographic and ideological changes that can’t simply be overcome by drawing ‘fair’ district lines. Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t real reasons to back redistricting reform.”
Though the campaign has gained a swell of support throughout both the University community and Virginia, Skelley said any reform to the current system will not happen in the near future. To alter the redistricting laws, legislators in the General Assembly would have to agree through legislation or a constitutional amendment.
“Thus, the people who hold redistricting power would have to agree to give up said power,” Skelley said. “Only a seismic shift in public interest and engagement on this issue could potentially compel legislators to do so.”
In addition to student involvement from within the University community, the OneVirginia2021 chapter also hopes to reach colleges and universities across the state.
“We’re brand new, but we’re hoping to become a household name in the next seven years,” Valentine said. “Regardless of political affiliation, this is something you should really care about.”
Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that current redistricting laws in Virginia mandate legislators redraw district lines every 10 years, not 7 as previously reported. _