When I was elected to the House of Delegates, I was excited to join the Privileges and Elections Committee, which decides which voting laws move forward.
But it didn’t take long for my excitement to turn into feeling hopelessly paralyzed as I saw bill after bill die, many with no citizen input — including legislation that would have expanded voting access in communities like mine.
At the time, I was one of only 33 Democrats and a freshman, at that. All I could do was regularly voice my opposition and make alternative recommendations, but it didn’t matter to many colleagues. Some assumed that issues directly impacting Black voters weren’t of larger interest to Virginians as a whole.
Take another issue assigned to this committee as an example: redistricting. The Constitution of Virginia mandates that the General Assembly redraw district lines every decade, and I’ve seen firsthand how partisan gerrymandering negatively impacts Black communities.
First, partisan gerrymandering dilutes the power of Black voters in Virginia. We need to say it out loud.
Some say that all it takes to solve the problems of Black communities is to vote. And while I will never refute the importance of making one’s voice heard at the ballot box, this argument fails to take basic math into consideration.
Many of these Black districts had been meticulously drawn to include 60, 70, almost 80% Black voters. They had all been “packed” into a small geographic area.
If these same communities were dispersed into a larger number of districts — with, say, 40 to 50% Black voters — it is a mathematical certainty that minority representation in the legislature would increase.
This inevitably leads people to wonder whether their vote matters. Black voices have been muted by a system created to protect incumbent politicians rather than to be a representative voice of the people.
Second, partisan gerrymandering leads to more gridlock in state government. As a former college basketball player, politics today almost reminds me of team sports. We defend our team, good, bad or indifferent, no matter who takes the court.
But that’s not how our political system was designed to operate. There are supposed to be checks and balances and room for everyone to have their opinions heard. It was on us, the lawmakers, to call out inconsistencies among our ranks and do what was best for the people.
Somewhere along the way, we lost that. Instead, we focused more on how Team A could beat Team B, and not on how we can collectively rise together.
Despite this, there is potentially good news on the horizon. Voters have a rare opportunity to take power back from elected officials by approving “amendment one” on Virginia’s Nov. 3 ballot.
This amendment would create a bipartisan commission to draw electoral maps in Virginia. This commission would include citizens in the process for the first time, require all meetings to be completely open to the public and would prohibit all partisan gerrymandering from the different factions of commissioners.
There’s an old saying: If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu. And by having citizens lead this important conversation, it will mark a historic shift in putting people over politicians in Virginia for the very first time.
Some fellow Democrats say Virginia should reject this amendment and try something new in the future. But none of the proposed replacement plans would amend the constitution, which is the only way to take this map-drawing power out of the hands of politicians. My former House colleagues know that, too.
We have a chance to act now and act decisively. Fellow Democrats must ask themselves: Do we stand by our same principles once we have a legislative majority, or do we operate as those who failed the people before us?
The choice is ours.