Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., speaks outside of the United States Supreme Court after oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford to call for an end to partisan gerrymandering on October 3, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

Advocates who want to change the way Virginia draws its voting maps have called in bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger to push the state’s reform efforts over the finish line.

The former California governor was one of the first in the country to implement major redistricting reform. OneVirginia2021, which has pushed for change for years, hosted a conference call Tuesday with more than 5,000 Virginia residents listening to Schwarzenegger’s experience and thoughts about redistricting.

“Gerrymandering is the most evil thing that happened to our political system,” Schwarzenegger said. “We have to get rid of the fixed system.”

Before bringing in Schwarzenegger, OneVirginia2021 hosted five town hall events around the state with former Republican Virginia Gov. George Allen to talk about why the redistricting process needs to change.

Redistricting reform would make a “more perfect commonwealth” and avoid districts that look like “spaghetti flung on the map of Virginia,” Allen said.

“If they do not get this done this year, it’s gone for 10 years and we’re going to have another 10 years of whoever’s in control setting the rules and partisan gerrymandering,” he said. “If the past is any indication, this will be in the courts. That ought to be embarrassing. This should be Exhibit A … we can’t keep doing it this way.”

Virginia’ redistricting reform options are a bill from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, that has gotten mixed reviews and a Senate proposal from Fairfax Democratic Sens. George Barker and Dick Saslaw. The bills were wrapped together Monday afternoon in a House of Delegates subcommittee, one of the ways lawmakers prepare legislation for a conference committee.

Both are constitutional amendments, which have to pass the General Assembly this year and next. After that, it goes to a referendum for voters to weigh in.

Schwarzenegger said he hasn’t reviewed Virginia’s options closely but he knows he’s not a fan of the House plan.

“The House proposal seems to be bogus,” he said. “It’s kind of pulling wool over peoples’ eyes and saying ‘Hey, look at it, aren’t we great, we are reforming,’ but in the meantime, it’s not really reform.”

The most important aspect of an independent commission is to remove legislators to ensure true independence, he said. 

Schwarzenegger established the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the University of Southern California in 2012 to study governmental topics like gerrymandering. An incubator at the institute helps states that are working on reforms.

Last year, he lent his political and star power to Colorado, Utah, Missouri, Michigan and Ohio to get redistricting reform passed.

Allen said he preferred the Senate’s bill because it gives a role to regular citizens. He was a target of Democratic gerrymandering in the early 1990s, which was one of the reasons he pursued his gubernatorial run instead of staying in Congress.

Barker and Saslaw’s bill would create a 16-member commission with eight citizen members and eight lawmakers. Citizen members are picked by retired judges.

Each party is represented by four members each and eight members are independents picked through a similar striking process as proposed in a failed bill from OneVirginia2021. The General Assembly still gets to vote on a map once it’s done but can’t make any changes. Neither can the governor.

Cole’s bill would create the Virginia Independent Redistricting Commission, a 12-member body responsible for drawing districts for the U.S. House of Representatives and the Virginia General Assembly.

Four of those members would would be picked by the speaker of the House of Delegates, four by the Senate Committee on Rules and four by the governor. The appointments would be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

That commission would create a voting map based on several criteria that have shown up in other bills, like making sure districts aren’t oddly drawn or cross boundaries like town limits. Once drawn and submitted, the General Assembly will vote on the map. The House of Delegates would only vote on the House map and the Senate would only vote on Senate districts.

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

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

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

The plan earned a stamp of approval from Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who said Virginia’s continued court battles over maps and Cole’s inclusion of the legislature convinced him to support redistricting reform.

Opponents of Cole’s bill, which includes some Democrats, said the idea is too partisan and still gives too much power to lawmakers.

“If you let legislators do it, they will fix the system,” Schwarzenegger said. 

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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.