democracy is a work in progress

Brian Cannon: Making Structural Change

2021-09-29T16:44:09-05:00
Brian Cannon, OneVirginia2021
Problem Addressed Voting Rights, Gerrymandering
Solution Led the effort to amend the Virginia Constitution to end partisan gerrymandering
Location Virginia
Impact State

What he did

Brian Cannon led the successful effort to end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia. In November 2020, Virginia voters said “yes” to an amendment to the Virginia Constitution that establishes a bipartisan commission responsible for drawing new election districts.

His story

Brian Cannon’s seven-year campaign to limit partisan gerrymandering in Virginia was not simply about fixing a broken electoral system. It was about putting structures in place that help politicians act in the best interests of the people they serve.

Amendment 1, the anti-gerrymandering proposal supported by Virginia voters in the November election, was about changing incentives and removing temptations to enhance and serve partisan interests over the common good. More specifically, the amendment takes the responsibility for redistricting away from the typically partisan state legislature and puts it in the hands of a newly formed redistricting commission.

Previously, when Virginia Republicans and Democrats had a chance to propose a fair map, they didn’t, according to Cannon, who was raised a Republican but is now a Democrat. As a result, he was skeptical that Democrats, who control the legislature in 2021, would draw a nonpartisan district map.

Cannon doesn’t mince his words when talking about his mistrust that politicians would do the right thing: “There’s no kind of lipstick on a pig that will change the fact that [without Amendment 1] you could set up any kind of commission but it still would have to go through the legislature and the committee process like a bill.”

Leaving redistricting to the state legislature would mean leaving it to the same partisan redistricting process, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats control the legislature. That’s why Cannon, as executive director of OneVirginia2021 and Fair Maps VA, led the campaign to amend the state constitution so that the legislature would no longer have the final say on redistricting. The new amendment establishes a semi-independent redistricting commission composed of 8 citizens and 8 legislators (4 Republicans, 4 Democrats). For a proposed map to be approved by the commission, it requires that at least 12 commissioners, including at least 6 of the 8 citizen commissioners, vote in favor of the new map. In the event that the commission fails to achieve this majority vote, the state Supreme Court would have the final say.

The Campaign to End Partisan Gerrymandering

OneVirginia2021 and the coalition of groups it led accomplished the following in their campaign to end – or at least limit – partisan gerrymandering in Virginia:

  • Met with numerous advocacy organizations and communities of interest to understand public sentiment around partisan gerrymandering.
  • Worked with members of the General Assembly to ensure that the language for the proposed constitutional amendment would achieve the coalition’s goal.
  • Lobbied for passage of the amendment in the 2019 General Assembly, which was controlled by the Republican Party. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
  • Lobbied for passage of the exact same amendment in the 2020 General Assembly, which had now shifted to Democratic control. It passed 38-2 in the state Senate, but was more divided in the House of Delegates, where it passed by a vote of 54-46, with all 45 Republicans and just 9 of 55 Democrats voting in favor.
  • Led a grassroots campaign that convinced 66% of Virginia voters to vote “Yes” on Question 1 on the November ballot, despite the objections of previously supportive and outspoken Democrats.

Brian Cannon, Fair Maps VA rally

One of the arguments that some Democrats made against reliance on the Court for the final word on the new map was that it was full of Republican – and so, they claimed, partisan – appointees. Cannon doesn’t buy this argument, explaining, “If you look at this around the country and you study this, you see that the courts never gerrymander…. And legislatures never don’t gerrymander.”

Another argument made against the amendment was that new legislation passed in the spring of 2020, HB 1255, would do what Cannon and others expected the amendment to accomplish. Specifically, it laid out criteria for how new district maps are to be drawn. For Cannon, this argument gets at a deeper structural issue: that the state Supreme Court gives “too much deference to the legislature.”

Early in his time at OneVirginia2021, the organization brought a lawsuit against the Virginia legislature for drawing a map in which districts did not meet the standard of compactness that they said was enshrined in the Virginia constitution. The Virginia courts, including the state Supreme Court, ruled against OneVirginia2021, stating that there are differences in how the term “compactness” can be defined. Rather than choosing among those definitions, the courts agreed with the state that it was up to the legislature to make that determination.

Cannon puts it this way: “The Supreme Court just basically said, compactness means whatever the legislature says it means.” For Cannon, the lesson was that legislation alone could not overcome this fundamental deferential relationship between the courts and the legislature.

Fixing a Broken System

Given Cannon’s blunt talk, it should be no surprise that two of his earliest political influences were Ross Perot and John McCain, two men known as blunt talkers. Perot, who ran as an independent candidate in 1992 to urge greater fiscal management by Congress, earned Cannon’s vote in a 5th grade mock election that year. Perot viewed American policy through a long-term lens, and spoke colorfully about the international trade deals that he believed would make a “giant sucking sound” as American manufacturing jobs disappeared beyond our borders. Perot was most concerned about the mounting national debt and the constraints it would put on the nation’s ability to provide future economic security for all its citizens.

Eight years later it was John McCain – “the first iteration of John McCain,” says Cannon – who became his primary political inspiration.

“I just thought he was awesome,” Cannon says of McCain. He “was out there calling out both sides on the money and the corruption in politics. The Republicans were too cozy with the oil industry. And the Democrats were renting out the Lincoln Bedroom for one hundred thousand bucks … and I was just kind of, ‘Yeah, right’.”

Cannon dove right into the issue. A senior in high school at the time, he gave a forensics speech on campaign finance reform. He remembers it as “the first thing that got me the itch of politics,” not because it was a big policy issue but “because the fundamental structure [of government] was broken.”

Cannon followed McCain and the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform closely while in college. Recognizing at the time that, like most legislation, it was full of political compromise, he still saw it as a step forward.

It was also in college that Cannon got his first real taste of organizing. He and some fellow students formed the Students’ Political Action Committee in 2002 to advocate for a bond referendum that would support higher education in Virginia. In an interview with The Fulcrum last spring, Cannon said, “[That experience] taught me there’s a seat at the table for young voters if they do their policy homework, show up and honestly engage.” The PAC exists today at William & Mary as Virginia21.

Flash forward eight years to 2010. Cannon was studying election law at William & Mary when the US Supreme Court decided Citizens United, effectively gutting McCain-Feingold. Cannon found he generally agreed with the Court’s interpretations of the First Amendment in that case and realized that there was no simple path to limiting the impact of money in politics. It didn’t take him long to determine that eliminating gerrymandering might be a good starting point.

Fortunately, Cannon had an immediate opportunity to confront the challenges of drawing fair district maps. He and a team of law students entered and won a statewide competition to do just that – draw the most compact maps in compliance with Federal Election Commission guidelines, using the same tools that politicians use to gerrymander. “It’s not rocket science,” he learned, to draw fair districts. One key, he found, is how the term “fair” is defined, because there is not one definition.

Cannon took that lesson with him to OneVirginia2021 several years later and adopted what has become standard language for those seeking to create fair district maps. In 2014, a coalition of 18 civil rights and good government groups established a set of “Redistricting Principles for a More Perfect Union”. In it, they agreed that “[c]onsideration of communities of interest is essential to successful redistricting.” They further agreed that transparency is also essential to the process.

Cannon lauds the transparency aspects of Amendment 1 as well as two software tools that allow Virginia’s communities of interest to show how they should be included in this year’s redistricting effort. This combination, he believes, will make the process far more fair than it has been.

Tools for Communities of Interest

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project created Representable, a free, open source tool that enables any member of the public to add their community information to district mapping efforts in their state.

The MGGG Redistricting Lab at Tisch College of Tufts University applies expertise in geometry, topology, and computing to redistricting problems. Their open source tools are also offered free to the public and to civil rights organizations to strengthen the protection of voting rights.

With the outputs from both projects, previously unrepresented communities have enhanced capacity to be heard and included in the redistricting process.

What’s Next?

In the short run, Cannon continues to work with OneVirginia2021 to chart its path forward, now as the champion of the new redistricting process. Initially, that has meant keeping its supporters and the public aware of the process as it is being put to work. Already the members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission have been chosen, one week ahead of schedule. The Commission will meet for the first time by February 1.

Moving forward, Cannon is not clear where he’ll devote his time and skills, but he is likely to continue to press for structural reforms that strengthen the foundations of American democracy. He’s very interested in both ranked choice voting and an amendment to the US Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College. He cites his experience in Virginia, where a moment in the transition of power from Republican to Democrat created the opportunity for reform, as a reason for optimism.

He also cites the desire among people on the Right and the Left for these kinds of structural reforms. In the course of the campaign for Amendment 1, Cannon says he spoke at more Tea Party meetings than anywhere else, with the League of Women Voters second-most. And what he found was a great deal of common ground when it came to eliminating partisan gerrymandering.

It’s this experience that led him to conclude, “As much as I don’t trust the political actors in this space to ever do the right thing, I actually do trust, collectively, the American people.”

Update, February 5, 2021: Cannon announced at the end of January that he was taking a leadership position with the Institute for Political Innovation (IPI), which promotes Final-Five Voting, a variant of ranked choice voting. IPI was founded in 2020 by Katherine Gehl, co-author with Michael Porter of the 2017 report, Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America, and the 2020 book, The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.

Written by George Linzer

Published on January 14, 2021

Updated on February 5, 2021

Photos courtesy of OneVirginia2021

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Sources

Brian Cannon, interview with George Linzer, Nov 6, 2020, plus follow up emails

Brian Cannon, LinkedIn profile, https://www.linkedin.com/in/brianrosscannon, accessed Nov 3, 2020

Staff, “Meet the reformer: Brian Cannon, closing in on a new way to draw the Old Dominion’s maps”, The Fulcrum, May 29, 2020, https://thefulcrum.us/virginia-gerrymandering, accessed Nov 3, 2020

Anya Sczerzenie, “Fate of Redistricting in Virginia”, RVA Mag, Sep 23, 2020, https://rvamag.com/tags/brian-cannon, accessed Nov 3, 2020

VA Dept. of Elections, Proposed Amendments for 2020, https://www.elections.virginia.gov/proposed-constitutional-amendment-2020/, accessed Nov 18, 2020

Gregory S. Scheider, “Virginia’s new redistricting commission prepares to take applications from the public”, Washington Post, Nov 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/virginia-redistricting-commission-members/2020/11/25/f7d6cad6-2f4b-11eb-860d-f7999599cbc2_story.html, Dec 14, 2020

Gregory S. Scheider, “Virginia General Assembly leaders name lawmakers to new redistricting commission”, Washington Post, Dec 3, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/virginia-lawmakers-redistricting/2020/12/03/7df0ad02-3597-11eb-a997-1f4c53d2a747_story.html, Dec 14, 2020

OneVirginia2021, “Timeline”, https://www.onevirginia2021foundation.org/timeline, accessed Jan 4, 2021

Michael Li ,Yurij Rudensky, “Rethinking the Redistricting Toolbox”, Howard Law Journal, vol. 62, no. 3, 2019, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-11/HLJ%20-%20Rethinking%20the%20Redistricting%20Toolbox.pdf#page=21, accessed Jan 10, 2021

Common Cause, “Redistricting PRinciples for a More Perfect Union”, https://www.commoncause.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Redistricting-Principles-FINAL-with-endorsers.pdf, accessed Jan 12, 2021

Ballotpedia, “Virginia Question 1, Redistricting Commission Amendment (2020)”, https://ballotpedia.org/Virginia_Question_1,_Redistricting_Commission_Amendment_(2020), accessed Jan 13, 2021

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