Though voting rights have had a tumultuous history in this country, one issue above all threatens the veracity of “one person, one vote”: gerrymandering. Gerrymandering, or the manipulation of voting district boundaries to specifically favor one political party, has been a stain on American politics almost since the country’s founding. Some districts have been heavily manipulated to allow a single political party in that state to maintain the majority of districts, even if the popular vote did not reflect that.
With the 2020 census came a movement to combat gerrymandering and allow elections to be competitive again. Two of the largest fronts in this battle, Colorado and Virginia, recently show two similar stories with vastly different outcomes.
The Fight for Colorado
Colorado’s fight for voter rights dates back decades, but most recently picked up steam with the creation of Fair Districts Colorado. At the time, the Co-Chairman of Fair Districts Colorado was Kent Thiry, who believed it important that Colorado voting districts represent the desires of the people, not politicians. In 2018 when Fair Districts began its fight, Colorado was roughly split into 1/3 Republican, 1/3 Democrat, and 1/3 independent voters, yet only had one competitive national district. As Thiry said of state elections, “Out of our 65 House seats, 90 percent are locked and loaded for one party or the other.”
Thiry and Fair Districts Colorado believed it important that state and national district lines be drawn by an independent commission. Previously, whichever party had control of Colorado politics after a census was allowed to redraw districts as they saw fit. This would lead toward results that skewed to favor the party in power, allowing them to stay in power through safe districts. An independent commission would remove political motivation from the equation, allowing for district lines to be as fair and unbiased as possible.
In 2020, that fight was realized as voters approved Colorado Amendments Y and Z, creating 12-member independent commissions to draw state and national district lines. It was immediately apparent the resulting districts were more representative of the population as a whole.
A Similar Battle in Virginia
Like Colorado, Virginia’s fight to end gerrymandering in its state was ongoing for some time before gaining steam. Those efforts finally came to fruition in the 2020 election, when over 65% of Virginia voters supported the initiative.
Opposition to this movement, however, raised some interesting points. As Robert N. Barnette, president of the Virginia NAACP pointed out, there was no explicit language protecting voters of color. He argued the plan, while important, needed to include such language to be truly representative of all of Virginia’s residents.
Similarly, Del. Mark Levine (D-45) expressed concern that the commission would not be truly nonpartisan because the Virginia legislature would still be appointing who is on the commission.
Despite these objections, the resolution passed, and new district lines were drawn. Interestingly, while the 11 Congressional districts changed shape radically, there was ultimately no change in power, with 5 Democrat-leaning seats, 5 Republican-leaning seats, and 1 competitive seat both before and after redistricting.
While Colorado and Virginia went through the same process, they ended up with different results. These results highlight the importance of the democratic process, yet also that fairness can be found in multiple forms.