The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A redistricting reform advocacy group has again drafted a constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission that would take responsibility for drawing the boundaries of Virginia’s legislative districts out of the hands of the General Assembly.

Some observers think the latest campaign is coming at an opportune moment: Republicans are facing the potential loss of their slim majorities in both chambers in next year’s House and Senate elections and could play ball to avoid getting gerrymandered out of office.

Stephen Farnsworth, director for the Center of Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said keeping redistricting in the hands of the legislature is a gamble for Republicans.

“One of the potential problems that Republicans face in Virginia is that before too much longer there might be a Democratic majority in the legislature,” Farnsworth said.  “And if Democrats are in a position to do to them what they did to them in terms of gerrymandering, that wouldn’t be appealing.”

One Virginia 2021 created a citizen committee in August tasked with creating the outline for a new way to draw voting districts in the state.

Currently, the General Assembly does it, but a court-appointed expert redraw congressional districts in 2015 and a federal court has ruled that 11 House of Delegates districts were racially gerrymandered and appointed a special master to redraw them. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal from Virginia Republicans in that case. 

“It is a political thing,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a committee member and former Virginia attorney general and state senator. “Power players want to draw the lines.”

One Virginia 2021’s proposal would allow legislators to still have a role in redistricting, but take the responsibility of actually drawing the maps out of their hands. Senators Emmett Hanger, R- Mount Solon, and Mamie Locke, D-Portsmouth, will sponsor the bill in the Senate, said Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021.

The organization is still working on finding House of Delegates sponsors.

Cannon said there has been support for redistricting reform on both sides of the political spectrum. But some top Republicans, like Del. Chris Jones, Suffolk, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, Colonial Heights, have said the legislature should retain the power to draw districts.

“It’s clearly a legislative responsibility, it was made to be that way,” Cox said earlier this month.

Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Cox, also cast doubt on One Virginia 2021’s objectivity, pointing out that the organization has cost “Virginia more than $1 million in legal fees by challenging the current bipartisan map,” that was supported in 2011 by Democrats, Republicans, then-Sen. Ralph Northam, most of the Legislative Black Caucus and the U.S. Justice Department.

“However, the drafting of a redistricting constitutional amendment will certainly be a topic that comes up during the 2019 session,” Slaybaugh said in a statement. “There are a lot of passionate advocates on both sides of the aisle and the amendment will have to go through the legislative process along with the many other resolutions that will be presented come January.”

Creating the commission requires a constitutional amendment. The proposal would have to be introduced and pass in the upcoming General Assembly session, pass again in the 2020 session and then go on the ballot for voter in November 2020.

“House Democrats have long advocated for independent redistricting as a means to prevent harmful racial and partisan gerrymandering,” Trevor Southerland, executive director of the Virginia House Democrats said in a release. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has also voiced support for nonpartisan redistricting. 

“Voters should be able choose their representatives, rather than the other way around,” Southerland said. “Our members look forward to working with constituents, colleagues and advocates to pass a constitutional amendment on redistricting reform in the 2019 session. We have great hope that when the districts are redrawn in 2021, it will be done by an independent commission.”

Cuccinelli, who was a state senator from 2002-2010, has supported redistricting reform for 12 years. This year, there seems to be some momentum behind it and it would be good for legislators to find an alternative to drawing their own maps, given how delicate the balance of power is in the legislature, he said.

In 2019, if Democrats are able to win a majority of seats — they came within one seat of an even split in the House in 2017 when one race was determined by drawing a name out of a hat — they would have control of the post-2020 redistricting process under the current system.

“I don’t think an independent redistricting process really aids anybody in keeping a majority,” Cuccinelli said. “That’s one of the beauties of it.”

In a poll sponsored by George Mason University’s Schar School of Public Policy and Government earlier this year, redistricting reform was “widely opposed” by Virginia Republicans, Mark Rozell, the dean of the school, wrote in an email. But in neighboring Maryland, where Republicans have been victims of Democratic gerrymandering, there was strong support for redistricting reform in the party.

“It appears to be all about politics — who benefits, who loses,” Rozell wrote. “Of course, the fewer Republicans in favor may believe that it is the right thing to do and the decision about the best process to use should not be driven entirely by partisan self-interest.”

The specifics of the plan

One Virginia 2021’s committee was made up of college professors, retired lawmakers and attorneys that have been meeting since August to create the proposal.

The group considered what other states do and their own experience in Virginia politics, Cannon said.

“The committee looked at what we had done in Virginia and seen what has been successful and what hasn’t worked,” he said. “They have a pretty good understanding of what can stick and what cannot stick.”

The group suggests creating a nominating committee of five retired circuit court judges who would be chosen by the four Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly. The fifth judge would be picked by his or her peers on the nominating committee.

Those judges would then nominate 22 citizens — five Republicans, five Democrats and 12 independents — for a 10-member redistricting commission.

Since Virginia doesn’t require voters to register by party, the General Assembly will still have the power to decide how a citizen is deemed a Democrat or Republican, Cannon said. They may also create additional requirements for who can apply to be on the committee, but anyone could redraw a map.

“I think eighth-graders could do a better job than the politicians that have been doing it,” Cannon said.

Those 22 people would be cut down to 10 by allowing each of the four General Assembly leaders to remove one member of the opposite party and two independents.

Any map the commission makes has to pass with at least seven yes votes. A member from each party has to vote yes and commission members wouldn’t be allowed to abstain from a vote.

Once a map is drawn, the commission would hold three public hearings in different regions of the state.

The proposal has clear guidelines on how members will draw the districts, clearly prohibiting gerrymandering and loosening population rules in order to keep natural boundaries and eliminate confusing split precincts, Cannon said.

A summary of the proposal says:

  • Districts must have equal populations. Congressional district populations can’t be more than one-half percent from the “ideal” number and House of Delegates and Senate districts can’t deviate more than 5 percent from the “ideal” population.
  • Districts shouldn’t “abridge or deny the ability of substantial racial or ethnic minority communities to elect representatives of their choice,” and shouldn’t favor or create a disadvantage for any political party or incumbent.
  • Counties, cities and towns should be in the same district whenever possible. If it’s not possible for other reasons, like population requirements, districts should be drawn according to natural boundaries, like rivers, roads and neighborhoods.