Northam vetoes ‘only anti-gerrymandering bill to cross his desk,’ senator complains

The 1812 political cartoon that helped popularize the "Gerry-mander," named for Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

FLOYD — Gov. Ralph Northam has vetoed a pair of redistricting bills, including one to codify criteria for the process and eliminate the practice of splitting localities between legislative districts.

Senate Bill 1579 dictated that congressional and state legislative districts, beginning in 2020, were to be drawn according to factors that included equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, respect for existing political boundaries, contiguity, compactness and communities of interest.

In his veto statement, Northam wrote that the bill “does not go far enough in establishing criteria that would ensure a fair electoral process for Virginia citizens.”

“Any criteria for redistricting must prohibit districts from being drawn to restrict or deny the ability of any racial or ethnic minority to participate in the political process and elect a preferred candidate,” Northam wrote. “The criteria should also prohibit districts that favor or disfavor any political party, incumbent legislator, member of Congress, or individual or entity.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, fired back in a news release, saying that despite his campaign promises, Northam had vetoed “the only anti-gerrymandering bill to cross his desk.” The bill passed both chambers with a bit of Democratic support.

“He could have joined the bipartisan effort to create a real compactness standard for congressional and state legislative districts, but instead chose a course that will needlessly divide communities into tortuously drawn districts,” Suetterlein said.

Suetterlein’s own district includes all of the city of Salem and all of Floyd County, but only portions of Bedford, Carroll, Franklin, Montgomery, Roanoke and Wythe counties, as well as portions of the towns of Hillsville, Christiansburg, Wytheville and Rocky Mount.

“The district I serve has eight great localities, but only two are wholly in the district and several towns are also needlessly split,” Suetterlein wrote.

Suetterlein’s district was drawn by a Democratic-majority Senate in 2011, in a move which pushed his predecessor, Ralph Smith, into a district with another Republican, Sen. Steve Newman of Bedford County, while also severing a third Republican incumbent, Sen. Bill Stanley, from most of his previous constituents.

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.

Smith and Stanley both moved into new districts, and Republicans picked up two seats that fall, creating a 20-20 chamber split that effectively became majority GOP with a tie-breaking vote from Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. Although Democrats won the election for lieutenant governor in 2013, Republicans won back a majority in 2014 after Sen. Phil Puckett, D-Russell County, resigned and Republican Ben Chafin won the special election to fill his seat. Republicans have held a majority ever since.

The redistricting and election of 2011 serves as a reminder that, even with favorable demographics and new redistricting technology, control of the ability to draw new districts is no guarantee of a permanent majority.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a proposed constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission. To take effect, the legislature will have to pass it again this year and then it will head to voters for approval.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the party affiliation of former State Sen. Phil Puckett and the characterization of the constitutional amendment process.