The Virginia House of Delegates recently passed a redistricting amendment that would rescind the state legislature’s sole jurisdiction over redistricting actions. The amendment creates a Virginia Redistricting Commission of 16 members, half of whom are legislators and half of whom are appointed citizens. The amendment will be placed on the ballot for the Nov. 3, 2020 general election, and aims to solve problems with partisan redistricting, also known as gerrymandering.
The final, bipartisan vote in the House of Delegates saw 9 Democrats joining all 45 Republicans to pass the amendment. The remaining 46 Democrats opposed the amendment’s language and preferred an alternative version.
“This is historic for Virginia to take a step forward on changing our broken redistricting system”, said Brian Cannon, the executive director of OneVirginia2021, in an interview with the New York Times. “It puts citizens at the table with legislators for the first time ever”. OneVirginia2021 is a grassroots group that led the effort to support the amendment.
The amendment calls for the creation of a Redistricting Commission containing four members from the Senate and four members from the House with equal representation from both parties. The eight citizen members will be selected by a committee of five retired Virginia judges. The judges will review four lists of at least 16 candidates, each compiled by two leaders from the House of Delegates and two leaders from the State Senate. These lists must be submitted to the judges of the selection committee by Jan. 1 of each year ending in one (e.g., 2021). Two citizens will be selected from each of the four lists by a majority vote. No member of the US Congress or the Virginia Assembly may serve on the commission.
The commission members would work together every ten years and use census data to compose fair plans for redistricting. Any decision would have to get at least six out of the possible eight votes from the legislators and also at least six from the citizen members. That decision would then go to the legislature for approval and if passed, the plan would go into effect. If the legislature fails to pass the first plan, the commission would have another chance to draw a new map. If the second map plan also fails passage in the legislature, the Virginia Supreme Court would draw the map.
- Click through to use FiveThirtyEight’s interactive map illustrating seven different ways that district lines can be drawn.
2020 Choice: Progress Now or Delay It 10 Years?
Urgency surrounded the House of Delegates’ vote on the amendment. In Virginia, the General Assembly, which includes the House of Delegates and the State Senate, must approve the exact same amendment language two legislative sessions in a row before the amendment can move forward to a popular vote in the general election.
In 2019, when the legislature was controlled by the Republican Party, Democrats overwhelmingly supported the amendment as it passed in the Senate 40-0 and in the House 85-15.
When the 2020 legislative session convened in January, however, control of both houses had shifted to the Democratic Party following the election in November. Now with the power of the majority, Democrats in the House of Delegates voiced objections to flaws in the amendment. In particular, they did not want the Virginia Supreme Court to be given a say in redrawing the district map, largely because the current court is composed of Republican-apponted judges.
House Democrats also proposed substitute language that provided for stronger protections for minority communities. A sample of that wording read: “No district shall be drawn that results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color or membership in a language minority group”, and “districts shall be drawn to give racial and language minorities an equal opportunity to participate in the political process”.
Underlying Democratic objections was the knowledge that without passage of the proposed amendment, Virginia Democrats would have been able to redraw district lines in 2021 given their control of both houses of the General Assembly as well as the Governor’s office. The existing law holds that the Virginia Assembly is responsible for drawing new legislative district boundaries for both congressional and state elections, and the governor has approval and veto power over the boundary changes. Thus, Democrats had the opportunity to retain partisan control of the redistricting process and delay establishment of an independent redistricting commission by 10 years.
Senate Democrats passed the amendment by a 19-2 margin, with some noting that accompanying legislation addressed concerns about involvement of a partisan court. The legislation “sets redistricting criteria and lays out a more in-depth process for how the commission would work”, according to the Virginia Mercury. In defiance of the pessimism expressed by some who campaigned for the amendment, the House of Delegates approved the amendment 54-46.
As the NY Times’ headline declared, the Democractic majority in Virginia had stripped itself of the power to draw district lines. And not just to draw the lines, but to gerrymander them in their favor.
Virginia is now on the verge of joining several other states in establishing independent redistricting commissions. According to a map of major ballot initiatives in 2020 produced by RepresentUs, a not-for-profit organization that works to pass anti-corruption laws related to the influence of money in politics, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Pennsylvania are also working to bring non-partisan redistricting opportunities to their voters in 2020. Citizens in three other states are defending earlier anti-gerrymandering decisions, by filing an amicus brief with a US Court of Appeals (Michigan) and by working to defeat efforts by state legislatures (Missouri and Utah) that are attempting to change or remove from ballots initiatives that have already passed or won citizen support.
Map-drawing power will pass to the Virginia Redistricting Commission if citizens vote as they have in other states to pass the amendment this fall. According to a Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy poll, 72% of Virginians support the redistricting amendment.
If the ballot measure fails, however, Democrats would retain full control over the 2021 redistricting effort to draw new district lines, just as Republicans held that power from 2000 through 2019.
The effort to eliminate partisan gerrymandering in Virginia is not over yet.
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WTVR CBS 6 (Richmond), “Redistricting reform amendment passes out of General Assembly, heads to ballot”, Mar 6, 2020, https://www.wtvr.com/news/local-news/redistricting-reform-amendment-passes-out-of-general-assembly-heads-to-ballot, accessed Mar 9, 2020
Graham Moomaw, “Virginia House passes redistricting reform measure, sending constitutional amendment to voters”, Virginia Mercury, Mar 6, 2020, https://www.virginiamercury.com/2020/03/06/virginia-house-passes-redistricting-reform-measure-sending-constitutional-amendment-to-voters/, accessed Mar 9, 2020
Michael Wines, “Democratic majority in Virginia strips itself of the power to draw district lines”, New York Times, Mar 7, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/06/us/virginia-legislature-redistricting.html, accessed Mar 9, 2020
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Virginia’s Legislative Information System (LIS), “Senate Joint Resolution No. 18, Floor Amendment in the nature of a substitute”, Mar 5, 2020, http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?201+ful+SJ18H1 , accessed Mar 9, 2020
Ballotpedia, “Redistricting in Virginia”, 2020, https://ballotpedia.org/Redistricting_in_Virginia#State_process, accessed Mar 12, 2020
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13 NewsNow, “Poll: 72% of Virginia voters support redistricting amendment”, Jan 2, 2020, https://www.13newsnow.com/article/news/politics/poll-72-of-virginia-voters-support-redistricting-amendment/291-da3c8d6b-10f5-45cf-80cc-e4d6650de2fc, accessed Mar 10, 2020
Brennan Center for Justice, “Overview: Virginia Redistricting Reform Amendment (HJ614/SJ306)”, Mar 28, 2019, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/overview-virginia-redistricting-reform-amendment-hj615sj306, accessed Mar 14, 2020