For the better part of a decade, many Virginia Democrats, some Republicans and anti-gerrymandering advocates have pushed to take away the General Assembly’s constitutionally derived power to draw political maps and give it to an outside commission. 

After the House of Delegates voted 54-46 Thursday to approve a constitutional amendment creating that commission, Virginia voters will get to decide whether they agree, just in time to change the system for the 2021 redistricting process. After several days of tense closed-door caucus meetings, nine House Democrats joined with 45 Republicans to approve the measure.

If Virginia voters give it final approval in a November ballot referendum, the commission will be formed to redraw the state’s General Assembly and congressional districts next year using new census data.

But the commission concept that won bipartisan approval in the General Assembly for the second year in a row did so over strong objections from some black lawmakers who said their concerns were ignored in a rush to embrace a flawed proposal. If the House had rejected the proposal, Democrats who won control of the General Assembly last year would have had the final say over the next redistricting process.

Over the course of nearly two hours of passionate floor speeches Friday, African American delegates characterized the plan’s approval as a throwback to Virginia’s history of suppressing black political power. A majority of the Democratic caucus tried to pass a substitute measure that they said would’ve ensured stronger protections for minority communities and done more to end partisan gerrymandering.

“The vast majority of the black caucus here now, we are against this,” said Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth. “If you’re riding with us, vote for the substitute.”

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, argued against the original constitutional amendment on the floor of the House of Delegates. “‘Every time we move forward, there’s always somebody trying to move us back a step,” he said.

Last year, the same amendment passed the House 83-15, with nearly three dozen Democrats voting for it. On Friday, several House Democrats who switched sides called their initial votes a mistake, saying they hadn’t fully assessed a proposal that came together in the closing days of the 2019 session.

“This amendment isn’t even what the advocates want,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, who voted against the amendment in 2019 and led the charge against it this year. “It’s what’s been sold as the only real reform. And that’s just not true.”

Supporters of the plan called it a bipartisan step that could restore some measure of faith in the democratic process, producing fairer maps with less potential to be drawn to favor one party or the other. Adopting the substitute plan House Democrats offered this week, they said, would restart the clock on redistricting reform, ensuring no constitutional commission could redraw maps until 2031.

“Voting for the substitute means the system that’s broken continues for another decade,” said Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach.

Anti-gerrymandering group OneVirginia2021 hailed Friday’s vote as a “historic day for representative democracy in Virginia.”

“Gerrymandering has always been a bipartisan problem that has required a bipartisan solution,” the group said in a statement. “With this vote, the commonwealth is continuing on the path to amend the state Constitution to create our first-ever redistricting commission.”

Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, argued that accepting an alternative amendment proposed by Democrats would end any chance of changing the state Constitution by 2021. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, held a sign emphasizing the point. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Though House Democrats wrestled with deep internal division over the proposal, Senate Democrats overwhelmingly supported it.

Shortly after Friday’s vote, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, walked onto the House floor. When he was told the constitutional amendment had just passed, he said it should have.

“The arguments against that were pure bullshit,” Saslaw said as he spoke with other Democrats at the back of the chamber. “I’ve been around here long enough.”

The proposed constitutional amendment calls for a 16-member, bipartisan commission. Half of the members would be state legislators, with equal representation from the two major parties and the two chambers. The other eight seats would go to citizen members.

Some House Democrats said there was no guarantees the commission itself would have black representation.

In a written statement, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, whose leadership team delayed a vote on the amendment until the session’s final week, said she felt it was “not ready to move on to the ballot.”

“I could not ignore the fact that the amendment, as written, fails to prevent politicization of map-drawing and does not sufficiently ensure inclusion of communities of color in the redistricting process,” said Filler-Corn, who supported the amendment last year but voted against it Friday. “We must be vigilant and adhere to an extraordinarily high standard when proceeding with permanently changing the Constitution.”

Supporters of the amendment have said legislative leaders and the judges who will select the commissioners can simply make diverse picks.

The General Assembly would still get an up-or-down vote on maps created by the commission. If the commission deadlocked or couldn’t produce a plan with enough support to pass, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court of Virginia would take over, appointing two experts — one picked by each party — to lead a court-run redistricting process.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, argued unsuccessfully Friday for an alternative redistricting amendment that was supported by a majority of Democrats in the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Supreme Court’s role, and the fact that the justices on it were appointed by the General Assembly when Republicans controlled one or both chambers, was one of the primary objections from skeptical Democrats. Because two legislators from the same party and same chamber could deadlock the commission, opponents argued the system would incentivize legislators to kick the process to the court if they didn’t like the commission’s maps.

Some Democrats argued the court couldn’t be trusted

“The justices of the Supreme Court are not gods,” said Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk. “They’re individuals. They also, like us, come from backgrounds. Come from philosophies.”

Saslaw said the courts will always play a role in the process.

“If we did the redistricting here, say there was no constitutional amendment and the Republicans didn’t like it, they’re going to appeal it anyway,” Saslaw said. “To that same Supreme Court.”

Though critics in the House said the amendment didn’t do enough to protect racial minorities and eliminate partisan gerrymandering, Democratic senators who supported the plan said those concerns were addressed by accompanying legislation that sets redistricting criteria and lays out a more in-depth process for how the commission would work. That legislation also included language that would have prisoners counted as residents of their last known address, not the locality where they’re incarcerated.

“I think the enabling legislation and the criteria we adopted with the constitutional amendment ensures that the lines that will be drawn in 2021 will be done in away that ends political, racial and prison gerrymandering,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, after the House vote. “Voters made clear that’s what they want for 2021. If we need to make changes to the amendment for 2031, we have time to do that.”

Though most of Friday’s floor debate in the House was dominated by Democrats who opposed the amendment, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, stood to explain why he had sponsored the plan in the House. He said even he had had second thoughts after seeing his friends adamantly opposed to it and getting strong support from Republicans whom he said spent the 2019 election year “lying and calling me a socialist.”

But, VanValkenburg said, as someone who ran for the legislature as an “idealistic civics teacher” with a belief in healthy democracy, he concluded that passing the amendment was the right thing to do.

“I believed in this from the beginning,” he said.

Mercury reporter Ned Oliver contributed to this story.