Senate panel OKs language explaining disputed redistricting amendment to voters

House of Delegates members walk past the south portico around 8:30pm at the end of the veto session at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, VA Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The House members were meeting outside in a tent instead of the House Chamber in order to practice social distancing due to the COVID-19 virus. (AP Photo/POOL, Bob Brown)

The General Assembly debate over Virginia’s redistricting reform amendment featured sharp disagreements over the most basic facts.

To supporters, it was a bipartisan, achievable step toward ending gerrymandering after a decade of good-government advocacy. To opponents, it was a travesty that would enshrine gerrymandering in the state Constitution and potentially make things worse.

It passed the legislature. Now the state has to decide how to explain a complex and hotly disputed idea to the voters who get the final say in November.

That work started Tuesday, when the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee unanimously approved an explanation of the amendment that will be distributed to help the voting public make sense of it on Election Day.

By law, that explanation must be neutral and “presented in plain English,” because the state will be paying for it to be distributed to polling places and printed in major newspapers ahead of the election.

The redistricting explanation prepared by nonpartisan legislative staffers was 489 words, bumping up against the 500-word limit imposed under state law.

The proposal calls for a bipartisan, 16-member redistricting commission, with half of the seats going to legislators and half going to citizens. The commission would redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts starting in 2021 and every 10 years after that, a process that can have a major impact on which political party and which individual politicians wield power in the state.

The summary language adopted by the Senate committee is as follows:

A “yes” vote will make a bipartisan commission responsible for the initial drawing of election districts.

A “no” vote will leave the sole responsibility for drawing the districts with the General Assembly.

Senate Democrats, who overwhelmingly supported the proposal despite strong opposition from their Democratic colleagues in the House of Delegates, approved one minor change to the wording intended to make it more factually accurate.

The original version said a no vote would leave the General Assembly with “sole responsibility for redistricting.” That was amended to “sole responsibility for drawing the districts” to reflect the fact that the governor can veto proposed maps under the current system.

“Drawing the districts I think is clearer for everyday people … to understand,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover.

They chose to keep the word “initial” in the explanation of what a yes vote means, a nod to the fact that the Supreme Court of Virginia would redraw the maps if the commission deadlocks and fails to pass a plan.

Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, the amendment’s sponsor, had proposed removing the word “initial.”

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, the committee chairman, asked if there was any “heartburn” over the language. No one spoke up.

There would likely be a different reaction in the House, which has not yet had a meeting to review the proposed explanation.

Democratic critics of the proposal have said true reform should include stronger protections for minority communities, not leave map-drawing in the hands of a politically appointed Supreme Court and potentially bar legislators from sitting on the commission.

“I realize we only have 500 words, but this reinforces the bogus narrative that it’s YES v Gerrymandering rather than flawed reform v real reform,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, a vocal critic of the amendment.

The House is not legally required to sign off on the language. Because the amendment originated in the Senate, the Senate’s preference would likely prevail in any dispute over how to present the question to voters.

Last month, the Democratic Party of Virginia voted to formally oppose the redistricting proposal.