Voters cast ballots at Charles M. Johnson Elementary School in Henrico County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
With Virginia’s redistricting debate now settled by voters, state lawmakers approved a package of rules Monday for how the new, bipartisan map-drawing commission will work next year.
Democrats’ dispute over the redistricting commission, which almost 66 percent of Virginia voters approved last week, delayed the formal conclusion of the special session that began in August. To settle it, legislative leaders and Gov. Ralph Northam agreed to pass a post-election budget amendment allowing the commission to be set up and begin its work next year.
Democrats in the House of Delegates had opposed putting the language in the budget as the session seemed to be coming to a close last month. They argued voters should decide on the constitutional amendment creating the commission as it stood, without any improvements added legislatively.
On Monday, a few House Democrats gave speeches saying they still feel the commission idea is flawed, but will respect the result.
“The people have spoken in great numbers and they wanted to see changes in how the redistricting process happens in Virginia,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, an outspoken critic of the commission proposal who called it “regrettable that there was so much confusion and misinformation” about the redistricting question on the ballot.
The House voted 99-0 to approve the redistricting language. It also easily cleared the Senate.
Proponents of the change have hailed the commission as a much-needed change to a system that has given elected legislators free rein to draw districts to benefit themselves or their party behind closed doors.
“From the start, this movement has been about putting the voices of citizens above politicians and political parties,” the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021 said in a statement celebrating the commission’s passage.
Voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a 16-person commission with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and seats split between sitting legislators and citizen members. Once new U.S. Census data is received in 2021, the commission will redraw Virginia’s congressional and legislative districts, a process that could determine partisan control in Richmond.
The commission’s members will be appointed in the coming weeks, and the panel has to hold its first meeting before Feb. 1.
The budget language approved Monday lays out who is eligible to serve on the commission and the process it will follow.
Among other things, the language:
- Bans people who hold partisan offices, political aides, campaign employees, lobbyists and others from being appointed to the citizen seats to the commission. It also bans political insiders’ relatives from serving on the commission.
- Stipulates that the commission’s makeup should reflect Virginia’s “racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity.”
- Declares that the commission’s records, including internal communications, are public and subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
- Bans commission members from discussing redistricting-related matters with any third parties “outside of a public meeting or hearing.”
- Requires the Supreme Court of Virginia to appoint two experts, or special masters, to draw court-overseen maps if the commission and the General Assembly fail to agree on their own. The special masters would be picked from lists submitted by political leaders from both parties.
- Requires any Supreme Court judge related to a member of Congress or the General Assembly to recuse themselves from any redistricting decision. Current Justice Teresa M. Chafin is the sister of state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon.
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