Last night, Del. Mark Levine (D-HD45) – one of the most progressive members of the Virginia General Assembly – went on the “Inside Scoop” show to explain: a) his strong SUPPORT for getting rid of gerrymandering and instituting truly non-partisan redistricting reform in Virginia; and b) his strong OPPOSITION to the current version of the redistricting amendment passed last year, on a bipartisan vote (including Del. Levine’s “yea”), by the Republican-controlled legislature. Note that, for this amendment to actually make it into the Virginia constitution, it will have to be passed *again* during the 2020 General Assembly session, then put before the voters. If enacted, the amendment will affect Virginia redistricting following the 2020 Census, and will have potentially *enormous* implications for Virginia politics in the next decade. In sum, there’s a great deal at stake here, and IMHO, we absolutely *must* get this right…and absolutely must *not* just “do something for the sake of doing something.”
With that, here are highlights from Del. Levine’s comments last night (technical note: I sped up the video slightly; if you don’t like that, you can always slow down playback on YouTube):
- “I think the answer is gerrymandering is wrong, but the question is how do we stop gerrymandering. And my concern is that the actual amendment that was proposed – which is not the amendment that the groups fighting gerrymandering proposed, it’s a different amendment, one the Republicans substituted in about 20 minutes before we voted on it last year – I fear it will make the situation worse – it will lead to the worst gerrymander Virginia’s ever had.”
- “So what the amendment says is basically the Virginia Supreme Court decides the issue. Now you may hear people say no no, Mark, no no, the Commission decides the issue. Well I guess it’s possible a Commission will decide the issue. But…it takes only two members to dissent...and there’s nothing the Commission can do even though there’s 16 people on the Commission…actually two of the same chamber…the whole thing dies. If the whole thing dies, then it goes before the Virginia Supreme Court. I think there’s a very strong chance the Virginia Supreme Court will draw the districts.”
- “So you might say well what’s wrong the Virginia Supreme Court?…Virginia is one of only two states in the United States where the legislature chooses the court… The Supreme Court, each of these people have 12-year terms. Every one of the seven members of the Virginia Supreme Court were appointed by the illegally racially gerrymandered Republican legislature of 2011. Every. Single. One.…So all the Virginia Supreme Court has to do is…the Virginia Supreme Court can draw strongly Republican gerrymandered districts. And you know who can stop them? No one. It would be in the Constitution of Virginia. There’d be no way to stop them. The governor, elected by the people, would have no role. Even the General Assembly, chosen recently by majority Democrats, would have no say.”
- “I’m not wedded to my particular method [of redistricting]. There are lots of different methods – there’s the Iowa method, there’s the California method. We could have this commission and not have it go through the new Supreme Court; I’m fine with that. Get rid of Virginia Supreme Court, let the Commission decide the boundaries – I’m fine with that.”
- “The timetable on this so for the constitutional amendment – it would have to be passed this year to get in the Virginia Constitution, then the people would vote on it. But we don’t have to do this by constitutional amendment; for the last 200 years it’s all been done by a law. We can pass a law and get it done right, and then we have ten years to figure out exactly how it should be in the Constitution.”
- “My favorite is called the efficiency gap…this way actually relies on computers and statistics; it takes all the human element out of it…no one can manipulate the system…here is a scientific way to do it … they look at what’s called wasted votes. So when you gerrymander, you do cracking and packing – try to pack your opponents all into one district and crack up their cities so that a Republican gerrymander would have districts that are 98% democratic and then several that are 60% Republican and that’s how you take a majority and make it into a minority. So when you do that, the wasted votes for Democrats is quite high…”
- “To me, the problem with gerrymandering…is not that the districts are funky-looking…but that’s not what makes gerrymandering wrong. What makes gerrymandering wrongs is it’s fundamentally undemocratic, small d, it’s unrepresentative.”
- “Right now, the issue is between the constitutional amendment – which is pro Republican – and my proposal, which is neutral.“
- “This dead hand of the Republicans dating back to 2011 could control our government forever. Because if you think about it, if you’re on the Supreme Court and you want to be re-elected you want to keep your seat and you’re a Republican, you know that a Republican legislature is going to reelect you, so you have an incentive to keep your own job to gerrymander it in favor of Republicans. Currently on the Virginia Supreme Court is a former Republican delegate, the sister of a current Republican senator, and the right-hand guy of Ken Cuccinelli…”
- “There are people who say, but Mark, wouldn’t it be great if all judges were fair? It would be great. And I used to believe more in fair judge…but after Bush v Gore, after Trump is putting all these these judges on the court…I’m not saying that all judges are corrupt… I’m saying that the people should have a right to choose the representatives. And we could have a situation where the legislature chooses the judges, the judges choose the legislature, the legislature chooses the judges, the judges choose the legislature – there’d be no way to stop them. The governor couldn’t stop them. And we couldn’t even amend the Constitution…”
- “This is a REALLY bad amendment. I think we’re better with no amendment than this amendment – with no law whatsoever than this…This amendment is bad news wrapped in a pretty package.”
- “On election day, I go to all every one of my 23 precincts on election day…and I was there and the the grassroots organization One Virginia 2021 was there. And they would go up to people…and they’d say are you against gerrymandering? People would say, yes, I oppose gerrymandering. Great, sign here…What people were signing was a petition to me as their delegate to say support the constitutional amendment that lets the Virginia Supreme Court control by the illegal Republican
gerrymander…But they didn’t tell the people who signed the petition that.…So I’m trying to sound the alarm. I’m trying to let people know this is not the way to go. And this wasn’t 1VA2021’s proposal. This was a proposal put in by Republicans at the last minute that gave us 20 minutes to vote on it, and we knew we’d get a second chance to vote on it. And I’ve had a chance to study it over the last year and I really think it’s the wrong choice…“
IMHO, Del. Levine lays out a powerful case. What would 1VA2021 say in response to all this? I’ve chatted with 1VA2021 director Brian Cannon about Del. Levine’s objections, and basically his arguments are that:
- The Supreme Court of Virginia (SCOVA) will have a role, regardless of whether there’s a commission or not.
- 1VA2021 is working on language to restrict SCOVA in the “enabling legislation.”
- There’s no upside to the status quo, and a lot of upside to amending the constitution of Virginia as opposed to doing this with a law (which can be changed by a future General Assembly).
So who’s right? I’m leaning heavily towards Del. Levine at this point, and am looking forward to December 11, when Del. Levine and Brian Cannon will be debating this issue at Marymount University in Arlington. Should be a very interesting conversation on this important issue!