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Compromise Redistricting Amendment Passes General Assembly

House of Delegates District 81 (Virginia Public Access Project)
House of Delegates District 81 Virginia Public Access Project

The General Assembly voted in favor of  a Constitutional amendment that would create a redistricting commission by broad margins on Saturday.

The amendment requires another vote in next year’s session before it can appear on voters’ ballots in the November 2020 elections. The governor plays no role in approving constitutional amendments.

If the amendment clears both hurdles, the commission will be in place to create Congressional and state legislative maps for the next ten years.

Lawmakers passed the resolution over objections of black lawmakers in the House, who said they feared it wouldn’t do enough to protect the interests of minorities or prevent partisan gerrymandering.

The compromise between House and Senate plans scrambled customary allegiances on redistricting, with Republicans like Del. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), who helped draw the current maps, reversing their past aversion to commissions.

“This is the best attempt that I’ve seen that would try to take politics out of it,” Jones said.

The compromise would create a 16-member, bipartisan commission with an equal split between lawmakers and citizens. Leaders from both parties in the House and Senate would select four judges, who would in turn select one more judge. The panel of judges would then select the 8 citizens on the commission, with equal representation from both parties.

All the maps drawn by the committee would require approval from 6 out 8 of the citizens and 6 out of 8 of the lawmakers on the commission. The maps would be rolled into a single bill for an up or down vote by the General Assembly. All meetings of the commission would be open to the public.

Brian Cannon, director of the redistricting reform advocacy group Virginia2021, said the compromise was imperfect but a good step forward.

“Partisan gerrymandering in Virginia will be over if we pass this,” Cannon said. “There is still other shenanigans that they can play on the edge of this.”

Cannon called for adding more specifics to the resolution before next year’s vote; “language that respects our communities and local boundaries, language that makes it even harder to gerrymander,” he said.

Samuel S.-H. Wang, director of Princeton University's Gerrymandering Project, said that while judges might be tempted to nominate citizens with connections to lawmakers, the bill included some protections against the worst incumbent protections. 

“Public attention to that committee's work could keep them on their toes,” Wang said. He also pointed to language that allows the commission to work off of criteria established by the General Assembly, which could later decide to bar lobbyists relatives, or party officials. 

Lamont Bagby (D-Richmond), who heads the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said the compromise didn’t go far enough in protecting minority interests or removing partisan gerrymandering. The bill “does not allow for African-Americans to have a guaranteed seat at the table,” he said.

Del. Joe Lindsey (D-Norfolk) agreed.

“We started with a very bad bill, and we got modestly better,” he said.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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