Va. House Democrats won’t bring their redistricting reform amendment to the floor

By: - February 19, 2020 1:30 pm
OneVirginia2021 Executive Director Brian Cannon speaks at a news conference on Feb. 12 in support of a constitutional amendment on redistricting reform. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

OneVirginia2021 Executive Director Brian Cannon speaks at a news conference on Feb. 12 in support of a constitutional amendment on redistricting reform. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates confirmed Wednesday that they will not bring an anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment for a vote by a deadline looming this week, a setback for the redistricting reform approach favored by the state Senate and advocacy group OneVirginia2021.

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, said in an interview Wednesday that his resolution to add an independent redistricting commission to the state Constitution would not be brought to a vote by Thursday, the deadline for the House to act on the measure. Jake Rubenstein, a spokesman for Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the resolution won’t be going to the floor.

The House can still act on the constitutional amendment already approved by the state Senate by a wide, bipartisan margin. But the fact that House Democrats were unwilling or unable to bring their own version of the amendment to a vote underscores the party’s internal divisions on redistricting reform, an issue Democrats have campaigned on for years.

The deadline for the House to act on its own amendment was tomorrow, but the chamber can vote on the Senate version any time before the legislature adjourns on March 7. However, the Senate version is identical to the proposal House Democrats chose to take a pass on.

“It’ll go until March 7,” VanValkenburg said. “It’ll go to the end. … It allows us to keep talking for two more weeks. And obviously I hope we choose the amendment.”

Last year, nearly three dozen House Democrats — including Filler-Corn, the minority leader at the time — voted for the amendment, which could create an independent redistricting commission made up of both legislators and citizen members. The commission would be empowered to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative districts starting in 2021, after this year’s U.S. census.

Anti-gerrymandering groups like OneVirginia2021 have long pushed for map-drawing power to be taken away from state legislators, arguing elected officials shouldn’t have free rein to create their own districts in a way that preserves partisan advantages or incumbent power.

House Republicans, who had blocked redistricting reform efforts for years, had a change of heart in the 2019 session, just before a pivotal election in which Democrats won control of the chamber.

Because constitutional amendments have to pass the General Assembly two years in a row with no changes and then be approved by voters in a ballot referendum, last year’s proposal is the only option on the table that would strip the legislature’s constitutional power to gerrymander.

After winning majorities in both chambers, some Democrats developed second thoughts on the idea, saying they’re reluctant to enshrine what they describe as a flawed amendment in the state Constitution. Some House Democrats, particularly members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, argue the amendment doesn’t do enough to ensure diverse representation on the commission and protect the voting rights of communities of color.

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, pushed a bill through the House that would create a non-binding, advisory commission to draw maps in 2021, an alternative approach that she says would give the legislature time to ensure stronger racial protections are built into language put in the Constitution. That legislation was delayed this week in a Senate committee.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Filler-Corn and other House Democrats prefer Price’s approach.

In a statement circulated by Filler-Corn’s office, Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, seemed to endorse Price’s proposal, saying it “provides necessary protections for communities of color who have been historically disenfranchised in the Commonwealth.”

“Amending the Constitution of Virginia requires a rigorous process over multiple legislative sessions and demands the utmost prudence and responsibility,” Bagby said. “We will not rush this process. We will take all the time available to us during the remainder of the legislative session to ensure the best outcome for all Virginians.”

Rubenstein said Filler-Corn is actively encouraging the Senate to back Price’s proposal.

In recent floor speeches, House Republicans have been pressing Democrats to explain the amendment’s status.

“We made a promise to the people of Virginia,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a statement Wednesday. “Democrats ran on that promise, and they won on that promise. They should keep their promise.”

The Senate approved the constitutional amendment in a 38-2 vote.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, didn’t have a strong reaction when told of the House’s decision.

“Well,” Saslaw said. “That’s their doing.”

Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, said Wednesday’s update on the process was “disappointing to hear.”

“The Senate did their job, we hope the House will do theirs,” Cannon said.

Last year’s election results meant that, by leaving the status quo intact or creating a commission that leaves constitutional redistricting power in the hands of the legislature, Democrats could have full control over the 2021 redistricting, with Democratic majorities drawing maps that would be signed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

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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.