Seal of Virginia
Seal of Virginia

Article XII, Section 1, of the Constitution of Virginia establishes a process for amending the commonwealth’s constitution.

The state Senate or the House of Delegates proposes amendments and, after having been passed through both houses, they are then presented to the voters for approval. Once approved by the voters, the state constitution is amended as specified, and that change can only be reversed by repeating the amendment process.

Citizens of Virginia will be voting on two constitutional amendments in this year’s November election, each of which would change or add text to the Constitution of Virginia.

Question 1: Redistricting Commission

In the United States, apportionment between the states in the U.S. House of Representatives is (roughly) proportional to each state’s population as determined in the decennial census. Each state is responsible for establishing the boundaries of its House districts in a process called “redistricting.” States must also draw the boundaries for their state legislative districts.

Different states do this in different ways. In Virginia, our process is defined in Article II, Section 6, of the Constitution of Virginia. Currently, the General Assembly is free to draw districts after each decennial census however it (or, rather, however its majority party) wishes. It is limited only by this clause: “Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.”

Because a partisan political body is tasked with drawing our districts, they are often “gerrymandered,” which means that they are drawn by the majority party for their own benefit. This is the case in many states, but some have attempted to reduce gerrymandering with nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commissions. Such a commission is proposed by this amendment. This commission would be tasked with drawing districts for the Commonwealth’s House of Representatives districts, and those for the Virginia Senate and Virginia House of Delegates.

The commission would be made up of sixteen commissioners. Eight would be members of the General Assembly—two each from the majority and minority parties in the two houses of the state legislature, all selected by the leadership of the parties. The other eight commissioners would be citizens of the Commonwealth selected by a Redistricting Commission Selection Committee. Four members of the selection committee would be made up of judges proposed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia and then selected by leaders of the majority and minority party leadership in the two houses of the state legislature. The fifth member of the committee would be selected from the Chief Justice’s list by the first four selectees to serve as their chairman.

This all sounds very complicated, I know, but what it boils down to is that half of this commission would be made up of an equal number of Republican and Democratic members of the General Assembly, and the other half would be made up of citizens selected by a bipartisan group of retired judges. It seems to be thoroughly bipartisan, but it does, predictably, exclude smaller parties and independents.

The job of the Redistricting Commission would be to propose legislative district boundaries to the state legislature within a limited time after receiving population data from the decennial census. The plans must receive a supermajority of the commissioners’ votes—six of the eight legislative members and six of the eight citizen members. This means that no proposal can be submitted that does not receive the assent of at least three-fourths of the legislative members and three-fourths of the citizen members of the commission. The commission is also required to make its meetings open to the public.

The proposed districts would then be subject to votes in the General Assembly, which may approve or reject them, but may not change them. If the Redistricting Commission is unable to submit a proposal, or if they submit a proposal that the General Assembly rejects, the districts would instead be drawn by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

I hate gerrymandering. I hate it when Republicans do it, and I hate it when Democrats do it. It is a matter of principle for me—districts should be drawn fairly. Of course there is some amount of discretion in determining what is ‘fair,’ but, were it up to me, district boundaries would fall along existing political boundaries (like county lines or ZIP codes), long established physical features (like roads that have been there for a while or rivers and creeks), and obvious community boundaries (like between neighborhoods). This cannot be a hard-and-fast rule; you must also consider the requirement that districts have equal population, which sometimes makes it impossible to draw borders that are clear and logical. But drawing a legislative district’s boundaries for crass political reasons is cheating . . . morally if not legally.

Yes, everybody does it. When Democrats are in control, they do it. When Republicans are in control, they do too. If you need any evidence that this is an issue about which principle means little, consider this: Virginia’s Democrats have been pushing for this kind of redistricting reform for most of the last twenty years . . . during which they were usually in the minority. Now that they hold a majority in both houses of the General Assembly, the Democratic Party of Virginia is officially recommending a “no” vote. And lest you accuse me of partisanship, Virginia’s Republicans, who stonewalled redistricting reform for that same twenty years or so, now suddenly seem to support it. Go figure.

Redistricting reform limits the power of the majority party and bolsters the power of the minority party. It is little surprise that the majority party of a given state—whether Republican or Democratic—usually opposes it, and the minority party usually supports it. There is a reason why the national parties are mostly silent on this issue; there is no morally coherent, widely-adopted position on either side.

I do not vote based on what party may or may not benefit, I vote on the merits of each proposal placed before me. The drawing of political boundaries should not be used as an opportunity for partisan gain, not by Republicans and not by Democrats either. I do not think this amendment is perfect, but it is good enough. It would go a long way toward ensuring our districts are drawn in a way that provides for a fair representation of the will of the people of Virginia, not for political gain by the party that happens to be in charge in the election cycle following a given census. I would have supported a proposal like this at any time in the last twenty years, and I still support it now.

I endorse a YES vote on Virginia’s redistricting commission amendment.

Question 2: Disabled Veteran Tax Exemption

To exempt certain properties from local property taxes, the Constitution of Virginia must be amended to permit it. Many such exemption authorities have been added to the state constitution in the past . . . seven times since Off on a Tangent began making political endorsements in 2004. This year, yet another is on the ballot . . . one that would exempt from all state and local taxation any automobile owned and primarily used by a veteran with a one-hundred percent service-connected, permanent, and total disability.

As I keep saying, the fact that we have to consider these types of amendments so often points to a structural problem with the Constitution of Virginia. State constitutions should provide a broad statement of governing principles and establish the structure of the state government. Day-to-day and year-to-year governance—like adding and removing random tax exemptions—should happen through the normal legislative process.

Rather than adding yet another one-off exemption authority to the state constitution, we should modify the constitution to allow the General Assembly to create these kinds of exemptions on their own, subject to the usual checks and balances between the legislative houses, the governor, and the courts. There is no need to vote on these amendments every year or two. I hope this exemption amendment will be the last; next time, let’s vote not to have to vote on these anymore.

Regardless, this proposed exemption would provide a small but meaningful benefit for disabled veterans. I endorse a YES vote on Virginia’s disabled veteran tax amendment.