Virginians are on the cusp of gaining fairer representation in their state legislature and in the US House of Representatives.
In the 2019 legislative session, both the Virginia House of Delegates and the state Senate passed a state constitutional amendment to establish an independent redistricting process as a mechanism to curb partisan gerrymandering. The proposed change passed with overwhelming bipartisan support: 85-13 in the House and 39-1 in the Senate.
Under Virginia rules, the exact same proposal must be passed in consecutive sessions before it is put on the ballot for Virginians to approve. The proposal was shepherded through a Republican-controlled legislature and now, following statewide elections in November that shifted control of both houses to the Democrats, must be passed again. If all goes smoothly, the proposal would be on the ballot in the 2020 election.
All may not go smoothly, however. In recent weeks, Democratic delegates have offered revisions and new plans that they say would be better than the proposed amendment.
The proposed amendment aims to correct for the practice of gerrymandering, the drawing of political boundaries to benefit a particular group. Currently in Virginia, the redistricting process is controlled by the state legislature, which had been dominated by the Republican Party for two decades until this last election. Following the last round of redistricting in 2011, there were major legal challenges to the districts drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature that resulted in the redrawing of both the congressional map and House of Delegates map. The courts found those maps to be racially gerrymandered. The proposed constitutional amendment seeks to attack gerrymandering by taking the process out of the hands of the legislature.
The amendment as written would create a body called the Virginia Redistricting Commission, which would consist of eight Delegates and Senators from both parties — two from each party, from each chamber — and eight citizens chosen by a panel of judges. Upon receiving the results of the census, the Commission would redraw districts for electing members of both houses of the state legislature and Virginia members in the US House of Representatives. Any proposed map would have to get at least six out of eight votes from both the legislators and citizen members to pass the commission. It would then require approval, without modifications, by the state legislature. If the legislature rejects the map, the Commission would have a second chance to draw a new one. If that one is also rejected, the state Supreme Court would draw the district lines instead.
A December poll found widespread public support for the amendment — 70% of respondents — indicating that, should it pass the legislature, it is likely to be approved by voters in November. The timing is important, as passage this year means the new method of redistricting would be implemented following the results of the 2020 census.
The bipartisan effort is not, however, guaranteed to become law. One major concern, raised by Delegate Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) in a Washington Post editorial, is that the state Supreme Court, the final arbiter of line-drawing should the Commission and state legislature be unable to come to an agreement, is controlled by Republican appointees. Democrats argue that if the Republican legislators vote en masse against maps, they could force the issue to be resolved by the state Supreme Court, which would, they fear, draw a map favorable to the GOP. Levine urges that lines be drawn by a computer algorithm instead, and that the legislature reject the constitutional amendment.
Another potential problem, raised by Delegate Marcia Price (D-Newport News), is that the constitutional amendment does not specify that the Commission should reflect the “geographic, racial, or gender diversity” of Virginia. She has put forward an alternate, legislative plan — instead of a constitutional amendment — that includes that language and also bars state legislators from serving on the Commission. Should her proposed commission be unable to agree with the state legislature after three tries, the legislature would draw the map, not the state Supreme Court.
Should one of these options prevail and the legislature not approve the amendment as written, the legislature would retain control of the redistricting process. And for now, that means the Democrats would be in charge of redrawing district lines after this year’s census.
OneVirginia2021, a group that has advocated for the constitutional amendment, argues that the concerns raised by Democratic delegates could be easily addressed with supplementary legislation that would help guide the Commission once it receives the results of the 2020 census. Given that Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, it is unlikely to be difficult for them to pass any changes they desire. OneVirginia2021 lists a number of legislative recommendations that would shape how the amendment would be implemented, including strict criteria for the appointment of commissioners and the drawing of districts.
While it may be tempting for Democrats to seize control of the process for their partisan advantage, it would come at the cost of a genuine, though perhaps imperfect, bipartisan proposal – and one that can be implemented in time for the next round of redistricting. Virginians overwhelmingly favor the proposed constitutional amendment. The question now is: will legislators listen to their constituents and follow through on their previous votes to put into place immediate redistricting reform?
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