Commentary

Evaluating Virginia’s redistricting reforms

That the commission has yet to find common ground is not surprising

October 19, 2021 12:05 am

One of the draft congressional maps submitted to Virginia’s redistricting commission. (Virginia Redistricting Commission)

By Alex Keena

Last year, Virginia voters approved a sweeping set of changes to the redistricting process in the form of a constitutional amendment proposed by the General Assembly. The centerpiece of these reforms is a bipartisan redistricting commission comprised of eight legislators and eight citizens tasked with drawing state legislative and congressional election maps. 

Despite delays in the 2020 census caused by the global pandemic, the once-a-decade redistricting process is currently underway. 

How have the new redistricting reforms fared so far?

While the commission is currently tackling the congressional maps, it missed a key deadline for approving state legislative maps. It was widely reported that the commissioners have split into political camps, and earlier this month three Democratic commissioners walked out of meetings in frustration.

That the commission has yet to find common ground is not surprising, because the design of the commission balances the power of Republicans and Democrats and gives legislators equal representation with citizens. Although the commission must approve a plan by a supermajority, there are few incentives for commissioners to divorce themselves from partisan interests and work together.

If the commission doesn’t approve the state and federal maps — which seems a likely scenario at this point — the Supreme Court of Virginia (SCOVA) will take over the process. 

Can SCOVA draw fair maps? 

As some Democrats have pointed out, a majority of the justices serving on SCOVA were appointed when Republicans controlled the General Assembly. Will this lead to maps that hurt Democrats?

My new book investigates the outcomes of state legislative redistricting after the 2010 census, and my co-authors and I devote an entire chapter to examining the effects of judicial redistricting. During the last redistricting cycle, state supreme courts redrew a total of eight maps that were used in state legislative elections. In all but one of these cases, the level of partisan gerrymandering bias decreased after the court redrew the maps. Most of the court-drawn maps were entirely free of one-party bias—despite the fact that most of the judges overseeing redistricting were appointed by political actors who might have preferred a different outcome.

The truth is, judges don’t behave like legislators, and members of Virginia’s Supreme Court are not avatars of the political parties that appointed them. While legislators have powerful incentives to rig the maps in their favor, the judges have an interest in upholding the legitimacy of the judiciary by maintaining the perception of fairness and integrity.

And thanks to legislation that passed by the General Assembly last year, the drawing of the map is governed by a strict set of standards that protects racial and language minorities, and forbids the type of racial gerrymandering that was drawn into the House of Delegates and congressional maps in 2011. 

Ultimately, “fairness” in redistricting is not simply about achieving a desired outcome — it is about the process and whose voices are included. The process we have now is more inclusive than it was before redistricting reforms were approved, when the parties in the legislature made decisions behind closed doors.

But there is room for improvement. 

The General Assembly should advance a second constitutional amendment to reform the design of the redistricting commission to exclude legislator-members and to include an equal share of citizens who are unaffiliated with either of the two major parties. This would go a long way toward ensuring that a broader set of perspectives informs the 2031 redistricting process, and that the commission has an incentive to do its job.

Alex Keena, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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