Senate committee keeps two options alive on redistricting reform; House Democrats’ plan remains unclear

By: - February 26, 2020 2:59 pm

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who was sworn in in January, is the first woman to hold the office in the history of the Virginia General Assembly. The fate of redistricting reform this session is caught in a tug-of-war between House and Senate Democrats. (Julia Rendleman/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Democrats are still trying to keep multiple redistricting reform options alive, but the path forward looks increasingly complicated amid a standoff between the state Senate and the House of Delegates.

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted this week to advance a version of the legislation supported by Democratic leaders in the House, while making clear they intend to modify it so it doesn’t supersede what the Senate wants. But with less than two weeks to go before lawmakers plan to leave town, the House still has not scheduled a hearing on the version favored by the Senate.

“We are very much discussing that important issue,” Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said Wednesday when asked if her caucus will bring an anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment to the floor.

Leaders in both chambers say they want to create a bipartisan, 16-member commission to redraw the state’s political maps next year instead of leaving it up to General Assembly members to draw their own districts. But there’s a key difference in how the two chambers would go about it.

The Senate wants to do it through a constitutional amendment favored by anti-gerrymandering group OneVirginia2021, the only approach that would strip the legislature’s structural power to gerrymander if approved by voters this November. House leaders want to do it with a regular bill, which they argue would allow for a superior commission with stronger protections for minority communities. But that commission would be advisory only, allowing the General Assembly to ignore its recommendations and draw the maps on its own anyway.

The outcome of the redistricting fight could shape state politics for the next decade, determining whether Virginia’s new, post-census political boundaries will ultimately be decided by the Democrats who control the legislative and executive branches or a more neutral commission where neither party would have a clear partisan advantage.

On Tuesday, the Senate elections panel voted 12-3 to advance the redistricting reform bill championed by Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, as an alternative to the constitutional amendment. 

That was after Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, offered a change to the bill to have it conform with the constitutional amendment.

“The Senate as a body has already taken a position on the constitutional amendment,” McClellan said. “I don’t think a majority of the Senate is going to want to take a contrary view.”

The constitutional amendment passed the legislature with broad bipartisan support last year, despite opposition from some members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Price included, who said it was insufficient in a state with a history of voter suppression, including two recent court cases that found racial gerrymandering occurred during the 2011 redistricting.

Price has also argued the constitutional amendment approach could put the state in a time crunch because no one will know for sure if the commission will exist until the voters weigh in on Election Day. 

McClellan said that advancing Price’s bill, which would allow a commission to be formed and begin work on July 1, could potentially allow Price’s commission to do the “valuable work” of gathering public input and beginning to draw maps, even if it would only end up advising the constitutional commission formed later.

But there was confusion over whether the Senate’s proposed change to Price’s bill would cause her commission to only take effect if the General Assembly approves the constitutional amendment or if it would take effect regardless of what happens with the amendment.

Meg Lamb, an elections committee staffer tasked with drafting the Senate’s change, told the senators it wasn’t so easy to make the two proposals work together since they were designed to achieve conflicting policy goals.

“There are provisions in this bill that would not be constitutional under the constitutional amendment,” Lamb said of Price’s legislation.

Price seemed open to the idea of having her bill advance as a standalone measure, but she said she opposed tying its fate to an amendment that she said has “fatal flaws.”

“I’m interested in trying to get the bill out of here,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, the committee chairman. “And it won’t get out of here unless it has that clause on it.”

“Then I’m going to shut up,” Price responded.

The bill passed with an added clause specifying it would only take effect if the constitutional amendment is passed. But that could change again at the bill’s next stop: the Senate Finance Committee.

If the Senate passes a version of Price’s bill that includes language making it dependent on constitutional amendment’s passage, it could force House Democrats into taking what could be seen as a proxy vote on the amendment itself, because the House would have to decide whether to accept or reject the Senate’s change.

House leaders did not bring their own version of the constitutional amendment to the floor. It remains to be seen whether they’ll take the same approach to the Senate version.

The final regular meeting of the House Privileges and Elections Committee is scheduled for Friday morning, but the committee could schedule another meeting to take up the constitutional amendment early next week. The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn for the year March 7.

Republicans have taken to the House floor numerous times to try to pressure Democrats on redistricting reform, suggesting the majority may be on the verge of breaking a promise that’s been a centerpiece of Democratic campaigns for years. 

Democrats campaigned on anti-gerrymandering rhetoric as the former House GOP majority made a habit of blocking redistricting reform efforts. That opposition broke in 2019, when Republicans helped pass a compromise just before they lost their majorities in both chambers, ensuring Democrats could have full control of the state for the 2021 redistricting.

Last week, Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, the chairman of the House elections committee, responded to Republican inquiries about the status of redistricting reform by reminding the GOP delegates they’re not in the driver’s seat any more.

“Sometimes you’ve got to sit back in the passenger seat and trust that you’re going to get to the destination,” Lindsey said.

On Wednesday, Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, jokingly said he would take that as a promise that the constitutional amendment will be put to a vote.

“I was really tempted to have to say: ‘Daddy, are we there yet?,” Head said.

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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. Contact him at [email protected]