Va. Democrats face a growing menu of redistricting reform options. Only one binds them for 2021.

By: - January 15, 2020 12:01 am

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s new Democratic majorities will have at least three different redistricting reform proposals to choose from in the 2020 session. But only one would take away the General Assembly’s constitutional power to redraw the state’s political maps next year.

For years, Democrats have called for the creation of an independent redistricting commission that would reduce or eliminate politicians’ ability to draw safe districts for themselves or their party. After taking power just before the 2021 redistricting process, they’re under a time crunch to figure out how to do it.

The Democratic majorities now have to decide whether to stick with the constitutional amendment that passed in 2019 with bipartisan support or scrap that plan in the hopes of coming up with something better.

Multiple Democratic delegates think they can offer a superior alternative. But because there’s not enough time left to begin the two-year process of amending the Constitution before 2021, the alternative proposals can only set up advisory commissions. If the alternative commissions fail to produce maps that can pass the General Assembly, legislators would still have the authority to draw the lines themselves.

The General Assembly would vote on commission-proposed maps in all three proposals, but only the constitutional amendment would hand the process over to the Supreme Court of Virginia if the commission fails to produce a passable plan.

Whatever the General Assembly does this session, the 2021 redistricting will determine how favorable the future maps will be to the Democrats who have taken control and could make or break Republicans’ chances of winning their majorities back.

Here are the options that have emerged so far:

The OneVirginia2021-backed plan

OneVirginia2021, the state’s top anti-gerrymandering advocacy group is still supporting the constitutional amendment that passed the Republican-controlled General Assembly last year by a wide margin.

That proposal calls for a bipartisan, 16-member commission tasked with redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional maps every 10 years starting after the 2020 U.S. Census. Eight state legislators and eight citizen members would serve on the commission, with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

The constitutional amendment has to pass in the exact same form this year. If it does, it will go to Virginia voters for a final, up-or-down vote on the November ballot.

Democratic critics of the proposal say it gives legislative members too much power to hold up the process. If a few Republican members voted against a map proposal, it would fall to the Republican-appointed Supreme Court of Virginia to oversee the map-drawing process, a prospect some Democrats fear would lead to more gerrymandering by the court.

Brian Cannon, the executive director of OneVirginia2021, said the fears of Republicans hijacking the process are understandable, but off-base.

“We’re in a moment with the lowest level of trust in people who disagree with us politically in our lifetime. It’s really sad that it’s infecting all sorts of things, including this,” Cannon said. “In order to have a bipartisan deal with a supermajority requirement, it requires a little bit of faith in the other side and a little bit of belief in institutions and the rule of law. I understand completely why people are whacking that right now. But the Virginia Supreme Court is not the U.S. Supreme Court. And the Republicans in Virginia are not all Mitch McConnell.”

The amendment passed last year with Republican support, and Republican leaders have indicated they’ll back the measure again this year.

Skeptics have also faulted the amendment for failing to include safeguards for communities of color, but supporters have said any shortcomings can be addressed through separate legislation laying out detailed criteria for how the commission would work and, if the commission deadlocks, how the Supreme Court would draw the maps.

Two senior lawmakers – Sens. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth and Mamie Locke, D-Hampton – are carrying the OneVirginia2021-backed legislation in the Senate, a sign it remains the frontrunner in the upper chamber.

In a news release late last month, Lucas said the amendment and accompanying bills “fully encompass the kinds of reforms Virginians have wanted for a long time: an equitable, transparent and bipartisan process to ensure our electoral maps are drawn fairly.” 

Some members in the House beg to differ.

Del. Marcia Price’s plan 

On Tuesday, Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, rolled out a competing proposal that she pitched as a more inclusive option that better rectifies the state’s history of race-based gerrymandering and racist voter suppression.

“Simply put, there is no reform without the full and equal inclusion of communities of color,” Price said at a news conference attended by Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker and representatives from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News. (Graham Moomaw/ Virginia Mercury)

Price’s plan calls for an 11-member advisory commission made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and three neutral members who have no partisan political affiliation. Sitting General Assembly members would not be able to serve on the commission. The commission’s makeup would have to reflect the “geographic, racial and gender diversity” of the state, a requirement Price said should have been included in the text of the constitutional amendment itself.

After the 2011 redistricting, two federal court rulings found that racial gerrymandering had tainted the process, requiring a court-appointed expert to redraw the boundaries to fix constitutional problems.

Price’s proposal also calls for proposed maps to be released earlier in the year to allow more time for public input.

Submitting proposed maps to the General Assembly would require seven of 11 commissioners’ votes, meaning one partisan bloc would not have unilateral veto power.

“We believe reform should not give one party the ability, be they Democrats or Republicans, to block the process from moving forward,” said Garrett Arwa, of the National Redistricting Action Fund, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

Price’s proposed commission would have three tries to get a proposal through the General Assembly, and legislators would be allowed to make changes “of  a purely corrective nature.” If no proposal were to pass, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly could simply draw new lines the same way past legislatures have.

“It would revert back to what’s currently in place,” Price told reporters. “Because it’s not a constitutional amendment.”

Del. Mark Levine’s plan

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, is working on a plan he acknowledges may be more “cutting edge” than what lawmakers have considered in the past, relying on mathematical models to determine whether maps are fair or not.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria.

The final details of Levine’s commission proposal were not yet available Tuesday. But in an interview, he said he wants to use past election results to ensure that that the makeup of the General Assembly better reflects the will of the voters.

The problem with gerrymandering, he said, is not “ugly-looking” lines.

“The problem with gerrymandering is proportional representation,” Levine said. “That’s the heart of it. When a minority gets to control the majority, that’s undemocratic.”

Levine’s proposal calls for a 10-member commission made up of three Democrats, three Republicans and four unaffiliated independents.

He said his plan will call for using past results in statewide races for lieutenant governor and attorney general (the contests he believes are the most purely partisan) to get a generic measure of Virginia’s partisan preferences. Once a map proposal is on the table, he said, it could be checked against that model. If the math checks out, an electorate that splits roughly 50/50 in statewide races should produce a General Assembly that’s about evenly split, while still allowing individual candidates to rise or fall on their own merits.

But if one party wins significant majorities in statewide races, he said, it should stand to reason that they should be able to win majorities in the General Assembly.

“We can argue about everything under the sun,” Levine said of his math-heavy approach. “But two plus two will always equal four. Always, always, always.

Levine’s commission would also be advisory, and would get two chances to make proposals to the General Assembly. If both fail, he said, the General Assembly can draw the maps as usual.

“Then we’re on our own,” he said. “We can do it because the Constitution says we can do it.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.