The Virginia Redistricting Commission held its first in-person meeting in July. (Virginia Mercury)
In the last part of the last decade, voters in Virginia and Michigan had become frustrated with how their political districts were drawn.
In both states, the voting maps were set up by Republican-controlled legislatures in 2011 after a previous census. In both cases, the districts were designed to favor GOP candidates and disenfranchise minorities, leading to a series of lawsuits that forced changes.
In Michigan in 2018, a voter-led group instigated a constitutional amendment to set up a new redistricting commission. Virginia did the same two years later.
There is one big difference. Michigan got it right, say experts including RepresentUS and the Campaign Legal Center. Virginia did not.
The reason? Michigan’s 13-member panel is completely non-partisan and does not include politicians. Virginia’s 16-member commission has eight citizen members nominated by legislators and picked by a panel of retired judges. Another eight members are legislators.
Virginia’s approach has led to deadlock. Partisanship meant the state’s commission failed to agree on new maps for both the House of Delegates and the state Senate as well as U.S. Congressional districts.
According to law, the issue was shifted to the Virginia Supreme Court, which, after some additional partisan jostling, finally selected two special masters to redraw maps by the end of this month. At one point, the court rejected all three Republican choices for special masters because of their overt partisan affiliations.
The issue is a national one. According to RepresentUs, a voter rights advocacy group, the country has 23 redistricting commissions. The group has ranked the commission finding that seven have a minimal risk of partisanship intrusion, six have a low risk, two have a moderate risk, three have a high risk and five have an extreme risk.
Of the lot, seven have truly independent commissions, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii. Idaho, Michigan and Washington. Among the worst states for redistricting, experts say, are Texas and Ohio. Eight states have commissions that are only advisory in nature and they tend to be toothless, experts say.
Virginia is one of several that allow politicians on the panels. The state is rated by RepresentUs as having a medium risk for having a threat to the process and a low risk for partisan bias.
Alley Marcella, a research analyst at RepresentUs, says that Virginia’s hybrid approach does include legal ways to prevent some partisanship but a completely citizen group is better.
“Michigan is one of our ideal processes and was a citizen-led effort,” Marcella says. Removing the politicians can also prevent map-drawing gridlock that has plagued the Virginia commission in its first year of existence.
Jon Eguia, a professor of economics at Michigan State University who also teaches political science, said that voters were so fed up with biased maps that the constitutional amendment creating a completely independent redistricting commission passed by a 61 percent margin in 2018.
“It was not a close result and it had wide support. Sixty one percent is a lot of support,” he says. Gathering momentum was an attitude among voters of going against an established order. “They don’t want to see a lot of people making themselves secure” through gerrymandering, he says.
In a recent essay, Eguia compared Virginia’s progress with Michigan’s. “The Virginia Redistricting Commission is bipartisan and political: Democratic and Republican state legislative leaders appoint elected officials for half of the commission seats, and they nominate citizens for the other half, so the commission has eight Democrats and eight Republicans, with half of each pool being professional politicians,” he and co-author Christian Cox wrote.
Mark Gaber, senior director of redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, agrees that a completely citizen-based commission is the way to go. He notes Virginia’s recent problems but says it’s not a complete loss. “I expect we will still see maps,” he says.
Virginia’s new commission has been controversial since its inception. Some regarded it as an important if incomplete half step while others said it was still so biased it was doomed from the start.
Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, says “I was opposed to it from start to finish. The commission is fundamentally flawed. It is not non-partisan. Legislators should not be part of the process.”
So what can be changed? Aird says the first step is to see what maps the Virginia Supreme Court comes up with. However, she says that the representatives in place are unlikely to change the commission. That would involve changing the constitutional amendment.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who resigned from the commission in frustration, agrees that the first step is to see what the new maps look like. But there are a host of problems, including a selection process for commission members that favors people “who are the most loyal.”
Another issue is that any time a commission member takes a stand, “Twitter explodes,” he says, although Simon had made frequent use of social media during meetings when he was a commission member. As far as significant change, he says “I doubt you will see anything big.”
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