A House of Delegates committee chose not to vote Friday on a proposal to add a bipartisan redistricting commission to the Virginia Constitution, but Democrats offered conflicting explanations for why they were delaying action on a key issue they’ve campaigned on for years.
Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, the chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, said Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration is working on a new legislative proposal that could be heard Monday along with the constitutional amendment. Lindsey said his explanation was based on a direct conversation with the governor.
“I spoke to him personally last night,” Lindsey said. “As a matter of comity we will hear consideration for what they’re trying to craft.”
Northam’s office apparently had a different view of the situation, saying in a statement that the governor is having conversations with lawmakers but “has not committed to any specific action or timeline at this point.”
“Given the increasing possibility of legislative deadlock, he is reviewing all options to ensure a new, transparent process is in place for the 2021 redistricting,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a written statement Friday morning. “Those options include personally engaging with legislators to reach a solution, sending a bill down, or calling a special session.”
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, noted that the constitutional amendment doesn’t require the governor’s signature.
“The governor doesn’t even have a constitutional role here,” Gilbert said. “His involvement seems to signal the potential for a very convoluted smokescreen to kill this amendment. I hope I’m wrong.”
Asked to explain the discrepancy, Lindsey offered a brief comment before walking away from reporters.
“I’m sure I must be mistaken and you need to talk to the governor’s administration,” Lindsey said. “How you like that?”
Lindsey announced the delay at the final regularly scheduled meeting of his committee, which had already refused to take up the constitutional amendment earlier in the session. Lindsey said his committee “will absolutely be meeting on Monday” with redistricting reform as the only agenda item.
Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, asked whether the delay and discussion of a to-be-determined alternative plan should be taken as a sign Democrats are “only trying to kill” the amendment.
“I appreciate your cynicism,” Lindsey said.
The outcome of the redistricting discussion could shape politics for years to come. Republicans — who blocked redistricting reform efforts until their final year in the majority — are expected to lose some ground due to demographic changes when congressional and General Assembly districts are redrawn next year using new census data. But if Democrats fully control a process that allows the majority party to lock in partisan advantages, they could pass maps that push Republicans even deeper into minority status.
Last year, the General Assembly passed a bipartisan compromise to create a 16-member redistricting commission made up of both legislators and citizen members, with equal representation from the two major parties. In order to be put in the Constitution, the amendment has to pass again this year in the exact same form and be approved by voters in a ballot referendum this fall. The amendment has to be approved this year in order to be in place for the 2021 redistricting.
The constitutional amendment passed the Senate 38-2, but it has not been put to a vote on the House floor.
Some House Democrats, including Lindsey, have raised concerns about the amendment, saying it doesn’t include explicit language ensuring black representation on the commission and protecting the voting power of communities of color. The House passed an alternative proposal to create a commission through normal legislation, which gives the legislature more power to fine-tune the details and correct any perceived flaws.
Without a constitutional amendment, that approach would create a non-binding, advisory commission, leaving the Democratic-controlled General Assembly with the legal authority to draw the maps.
Supporters of the amendment have said changing the Constitution is the only way to structurally limit the General Assembly’s power to gerrymander.
Northam — who like many Democrats made redistricting reform a key promise his 2017 gubernatorial campaign — has not taken a clear position on the constitutional amendment, but he has echoed some of the criticisms made by House Democrats.
Lindsey seemed to suggest that the governor would be suggesting changes to the House’s alternative commission bill sponsored by Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News.
That was news to Price.
“I have not seen anything from the governor,” Price said Friday, adding that her bill is “being held hostage in the Senate.”
The Senate has moved to add language to Price’s bill specifying that her statutory commission could only take effect if the constitutional amendment passes. Price said she welcomed the opportunity to have more discussions on the issue and explain why she believes the amendment is fatally flawed.
Backers of the constitutional amendment said they were disappointed by Friday’s delay.
“We can wait until Monday. That’s fine,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, who sponsored the amendment in the House. “But any attempts to further muddy the waters are just attempts to try to kill something that the vast majority of the legislature wants to pass.”
Brian Cannon, executive director of anti-gerrymandering group OneVirginia2021, said he doubted any minds would change over the weekend.
“They’ve had over a year to think about it,” Cannon said. “And we have overwhelming bipartisan support on it.”
Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the constitutional amendment in the Senate, said he’s still confident the House committee will bring it to a vote and pass it. But he too said he was unclear on what the governor’s office has planned.
“When I hear things being said, I always figure there’s about a 50 percent chance that half of that is right,” Barker said.