In historic change, Virginia voters approve bipartisan commission to handle political redistricting

By: - November 4, 2020 1:17 am

Voters arrive at the Taylor Masonic Lodge in Scottsville, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering. 

On Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

Though some votes were still uncounted, FairMapsVA, the anti-gerrymandering group pushing for the amendment with its parent organization OneVirginia2021, declared victory around 12:40 a.m., saying the result came after six years of work.

“Tonight, we celebrate the formation of Virginia’s first citizen-led redistricting commission; and tomorrow, we get back to work to ensure the commission’s work is successful,” the group said in a statement.

The outcome ensures that the next redistricting process — which could determine how much representation Virginia communities have, which political party is likely to hold power in Richmond and which incumbents are or aren’t safe from election challenges — will have at least some direct citizen involvement for the first time ever.

Once a decade, the state uses new U.S. Census data to redraw legislative and congressional maps to ensure each district has roughly the same population. How those districts are drawn can have far-reaching impacts, affecting which party can win a majority of the seats, electoral competitiveness, how much political power minority communities have and which individual politicians get to represent a particular area. So it’s no surprise that changing who draws those maps was a contentious endeavor.

The vote on the redistricting question, coupled with strong Democratic victories in Tuesday’s statewide races, reveals a disconnect between some Democratic leaders and the party’s voters. 

Many Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against the commission proposal this year after voting for it in 2019, a reversal they said came after they had more time to consider its flaws. The Democratic Party of Virginia also officially opposed the initiative despite the fact that it was supported by senior Virginia Democrats like U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Had the amendment failed, the Democratic-led General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam would have the final say on new maps.

Fair Districts VA, an advocacy group formed by Democrats opposed to the ballot question, conceded defeat early Wednesday morning, saying it had been “fighting an uphill battle.” The group demanded that more be done to pursue stronger redistricting reform going forward.

“The people who pushed Amendment 1 know of its flaws – and it is now incumbent upon them to seek real solutions to fix those flaws,” Fair Districts said in a news release.

The proposal was supported by national good-government groups as well as the ACLU of Virginia, the League of Women Voters of Virginia and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. But it fell short of what many redistricting reformers envisioned: a fully independent commission that gives incumbent politicians no power whatsoever to draw their own districts. 

Because Virginia has no process for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, it’s always been up to state lawmakers to willingly give up their redistricting power. In previous years, the Republican-led House of Delegates routinely blocked redistricting reform efforts. But GOP leaders changed their position in 2019 after federal courts redrew some House districts to correct Republican-led racial gerrymandering, a development that helped put the House GOP majority in jeopardy heading into the 2019 elections. 

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

Reserving half the seats for legislators was seen as a compromise that still gives General Assembly leaders a hand in redistricting, which can have career-ending consequences for incumbents whose districts change dramatically.

Maps produced by the new commission will go to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. If the commission can’t agree on maps or the General Assembly rejects the commission’s maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia would conduct a court-supervised redistricting process.

Opponents have also argued the commission proposal lacks explicit protections for minority communities. Supporters say the amendment achieves that by referencing the federal Voting Rights Act and specifying that districts will allow “opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”

The insidery arguments about the commission’s particulars seemed to escape many Virginians. 

Some voters said they hadn’t heard about the redistricting amendment until they saw it on their ballot Tuesday, drawing disparate conclusions about its potential impact from the one-paragraph description they read in the voting booth.

At a polling place in downtown Richmond, none sounded especially confident in their interpretations.

“It’s so convoluted if you read it from the back of a voter ballot,” said Patrick Ogden, who ultimately decided to vote no because he opposed the idea of stripping the governor of his authority to veto redistricting plans and giving the unelected members of the Supreme Court of Virginia a role in the process. “I believe the governor should have a little more say. At least that’s what I read from it.”

Sasha Atkins, who also voted no, said the explanation on the ballot made her worry the amendment wouldn’t give regular citizens enough of a say in the redistricting process. “We should be representing ourselves,” she said.

Another voter at the same polling place said she voted for the measure, but only because she thought it addressed how local school districts redraw their boundaries.

In Southwest Virginia’s Franklin County, Gary Holden of Ferrum said he supported the commission while voting “straight-ticket Democrat.” He said he saw the commission as preferable to the current system “so long as it’s made up of equal parties.”

In Virginia Beach, 44-year-old schoolteacher Scott Parker said he voted for the redistricting amendment because he wanted to bring more logic to the process.

At the same polling place, Janise Jenkins, a 39-year-old property manager, also said the amendment would be an improvement on the status quo.

“It will be fair, more reasonable,” she said.

The commission was approved just in time to handle the redistricting process scheduled for 2021, but pandemic-related delays with the census data could create severe timing issues. With all 100 seats in the House of Delegates up for election next year, officials will have to rush to get new districts in place in time for late-summer primaries and a shortened general-election cycle. 

If the delays make it impossible to draw new districts in time, the House elections could potentially be run using existing district lines. The state could also be left scrambling if there appear to be major problems with the census count conducted in such a chaotic year.

In the short term, officials will get to work setting up the commission and deciding who will serve on it. By Nov. 15, the state Supreme Court is supposed to submit a list of retired judges willing to serve on a selection committee that will pick the citizen members from nominees floated by General Assembly leaders. The commission’s eight legislative members are scheduled to be appointed by Dec. 1.

The commission has to hold its first public meeting by Feb. 1.

First, the General Assembly will reconvene to pass additional rules for how the commission will work. Those rules were being considered for inclusion in the state budget during the recent special session, but the fierce intraparty debate among Democrats over the amendment led lawmakers to keep the budget process open until after the outcome was known.

With the amendment approved by voters, the legislature is set to return next week to finish that work.

Mercury reporter Ned Oliver and correspondents Roger Chesley and Mason Adams contributed to this story.

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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.