Virginia Democrats haven’t decided whether they’ll put an anti-gerrymandering amendment in the state Constitution, but the possible paths forward on redistricting reform got a little clearer Thursday morning.
A House of Delegates subcommittee narrowed three options to two, keeping alive one bill tied to a constitutional amendment and an alternative bill meant to stand on its own for the 2021 redistricting process.
Both bills create a bipartisan redistricting commission that would redraw the state’s congressional and General Assembly districts after the 2020 census. But there’s one major difference between them, and the direction House Democrats choose to go could have major ramifications for the balance of political power in the next decade.
If the redistricting reform effort falls apart entirely, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly could redraw the state’s political maps in 2021, creating an opportunity to lock in their newly won legislative majorities for years to come.
Republicans have already signaled they’ll attack Democrats as hypocrites if they fail to follow through on the constitutional amendment after years of campaign promises to end gerrymandering. The amendment’s Democratic critics have said their party shouldn’t feel locked into what they see as a flawed plan crafted last year in the waning hours of Republican control.
On Thursday, Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee joined together to advance a commission bill tied to the bipartisan constitutional amendment the General Assembly passed last year. That bill, supported by anti-gerrymandering group OneVirginia2021, is being sponsored by Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico.
A competing bill — pitched by Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, as a superior alternative that does more to protect communities of color — cleared the subcommittee with only Democratic support.
A third proposal from Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, was rolled into Price’s bill. But the subcommittee essentially took a pass on Levine’s idea for a mathematical partisanship model that could be used to test whether future maps are politically fair or not.
Thursday’s votes left House Democrats with two options. They can pass VanValkenburg’s bill and the associated constitutional amendment, continuing the process of stripping the General Assembly’s constitutionally-derived powers to gerrymander. Or they can change course and pass Price’s bill, setting up an advisory commission that could redraw maps in 2021 without having constitutionally binding authority over the process.
With the state Senate seemingly lining up behind the constitutional amendment route, the House’s decision could make or break reform efforts this year.
Price and VanValkenburg have both made significant changes to their bills designed to win over undecided colleagues.
Critics of the constitutional amendment don’t like that the conservative Supreme Court of Virginia would be empowered to draw maps as a fallback if the redistricting commission fails to produce a plan that can pass the General Assembly. Under a change to the accompanying bill dictating the process the Supreme Court would follow, the court would have to select two experts to redraw the maps, one chosen by Democrats and one chosen by Republicans.
VanValkenburg said that provision effectively creates a “second mini-commission,” easing concerns that conservative-leaning judges could draw maps favorable to the party that appointed them.
“We can’t just pick Joe Blow off the street to draw maps,” VanValkenburg said. “They have to have experience.”
Price’s bill originally called for an independent, citizen-only commission, barring legislators from serving on the redistricting panel.
“I was told that I did not have the votes for that,” Price said.
A newly amended version of Price’s bill calls for a 16-person commission made up of eight legislative members and eight citizen members.
Price contends that because the constitutional amendment lacks explicit protections for communities of color, Democrats should take time to fix it, even if means restarting the two-year clock for changing the Constitution. She has disputed the notion that her approach is about protecting Democrats’ power to gerrymander, noting she spoke out against the amendment last year even as many of her colleagues voted for it.
“My concerns from 2019 have not been assuaged with the new composition of the General Assembly,” Price said during Thursday’s hearing. “Because my concerns are not about party, but about people.”
Constitutional amendments have to pass the General Assembly two years in a row then be approved by voters in a ballot referendum. If the General Assembly approves the amendment this year, it will be on ballots across Virginia this fall.
Proponents of the amendment have said the accompanying bill to establish the commission addresses many of the concerns and ensures diverse representation on the commission and protections for racial minorities.
“Delegate Van Valkenburg’s bill is the complete package,” said Greg Lucyk, an attorney affiliated with OneVirginia2021.
The full House Privileges and Elections committee will take up the redistricting bills Friday, but a decision on the resolution reapproving the constitutional amendment won’t come until later in the session. Because one bill is contingent on the amendment passing and the other is not, both redistricting bills could potentially be kept alive until lawmakers reach a decision on the amendment.
In speeches throughout the session, Republicans have pressured Democrats to explain where things stand on redistricting reform.
“The public is sick and tired of candidates saying one thing and when they get elected and when they have the opportunity to show political courage, they fail to do so,” Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, said on the House floor Thursday.
That drew a response from Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, who said Republicans who keep poking Democrats for inaction are only playing to the cameras.
“We are at work, shoulders to the wheel,” Lindsey said. “And we’re getting the job done.”