‘Taking redistricting into a smoke-filled room:’ Why Democrats are pushing back on reform measure

By: - February 7, 2019 5:01 am
The Virginia House of Delegates met Thursday to discuss redistricting, but didn't get far. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 30, 2018)

The Virginia House of Delegates. Delegates voted Monday to pass legislation that will provide protections for residents evicted from assisted living facilities in Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Aug. 30, 2018)

Virginia is closer than ever to figuring out how to fix the process of drawing voting maps, but some Democrats are backing away from the bill that would do it.

House Democrats have serious concerns about the redistricting reform bill that passed  their chamber, saying it doesn’t keep legislators far enough from drawing the districts they serve.

“They say it’s independent but that’s like saying up is down and left is right,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico. “It takes redistricting into a smoke-filled room.”

On a party-line vote, the House passed a proposal from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, that would create a 12-member commission, with four members picked each by the speaker of the House of Delegates, the Senate Committee on Rules and the governor. The appointments would be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

That commission would create a voting map based on several criteria, like making sure districts aren’t oddly drawn or cross boundaries like town limits. Once it’s done, the General Assembly would vote on it. The House of Delegates would only vote on the House map and the Senate would only vote on Senate districts.

For districts for federal positions, eight of the 12 commissioners have to approve it. In the state House and Senate, three of the four members appointed by each chamber have to approve it.

If the General Assembly rejects two versions of the map, the state Supreme Court, made up of judges appointed by the General Assembly, would create a map.

The governor isn’t involved in the process after the selection of the commission.

Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, at a committee meeting in the General Assembly Building. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

On the House floor, Cole said his bill was simple. He didn’t respond to The Mercury’s questions about Democrats’ criticisms.

Advocates for redistricting reform said Cole’s bill is an improvement over the current process, but VanValkenburg and Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, don’t think so. Sickles tried twice to change Cole’s bill with no success.

VanValkenburg said Cole’s bill is missing language to require transparency — like holding public hearings — specific rules for protecting communities of interest, like minorities and doesn’t prohibit the use of partisan data to draw the maps.

And there aren’t enough filters between the appointed members and the leaders who choose them.

“Every Democrat’s got their favorite Republican and every Republican’s got their favorite Democrat,” VanValkenburg said.

A ‘Grand Canyon’ between bills

Redistricting reform has long been a bipartisan effort, with the most staunch opponents in the House. The Senate has passed its own versions of redistricting reform in the past.

But the possibility of reform got real power a few weeks ago when Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said he was tired of courts meddling with Virginia’s voting maps and supported Cole’s bill.

In the last decade, two of Virginia’s voting maps have been ruled unconstitutional and had to be redrawn by a court-appointed expert.

In 2015, the expert redrew congressional districts because the maps were found to be racially gerrymandered. Currently, the same expert is redrawing 11 House of Delegates districts for the same reason.

Republican U.S. Sen. Randy Forbes was drawn out of his district in 2015, and the current map revision seems to target Republican leadership, Cox has said.

Democrats don’t think Cole’s bill will solve the state’s problems. It would still enshrine a partisan process into the constitution, which could lead to more gerrymandering.

“It would make the election this fall extremely meaningful, because whoever wins the majority controls redistricting for the next decade,” Sickles said.

He took particular issue with the way Cole’s bill appoints commission members.

“It’s pretty astounding we’re going to have four people chosen by the speaker to draw lines for the House of Delegates,” Sickles said at a committee meeting before the bill went to the full House. “That really gives the speaker, whoever that may be, extraordinary power.”

In its place, Sickles proposed the same plan drafted by advocacy group OneVirginia2021 and carried in the Senate by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta. The bill wasn’t introduced in the House and the Senate version died in a subcommittee.

The plan would, in part, allow retired judges to pick members of a 22-member commission. From there, parties could strike members from the commission, like a jury.

“You’d really ferret out strong political interests that may want to do something in a self-favoring mode,” Sickles said.

Sickles tried again to introduce the amendment on the House floor but because of parliamentary rules, it couldn’t be considered for adoption.

The Senate has advanced its own bill from Fairfax Democratic Sens. George Barker and Dick Saslaw. It calls for a 16-member commission with eight citizen members and eight lawmakers (four from each chamber). Citizen members would be picked by retired judges.

Each party would be represented by four members each.  The eight citizen members must come from a list of 16 candidates, with four candidates from each party and eight candidates who are “voters who do not affiliate with any political party.”

Those candidates would be winnowed down through a similar striking process as proposed in OneVirginia2021’s bill. The General Assembly would still get a vote on a map once it’s done but can’t make any changes. Neither can the governor.

Sickles and VanValkenburg both said if Cole’s bill survives a conference committee, they would vote no and prefer the framework of the Barker-Saslaw bill.

“There’s a Grand Canyon between Barker’s and Cole’s resolution,” Sickles said. “The Barker bill has a lot of promise.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.