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Democrats Debate Fairness of Proposed Redistricting Amendment

Brian Cannon director of the advocacy group OneVirginia2021
Brian Cannon, executive director of the advocacy group OneVirginia2021, is trying to persuade Democratic lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment setting up a redistricting committee. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

For years, Virginia Democrats have campaigned against gerrymandering.

But some are reluctant to hand over their powers to draw maps to a commission, citing concerns about black representation and the influence of the Virginia Supreme Court.

Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk) is among the skeptics. He says the plan, which needs to be approved by the General Assembly again in the 2020 session, doesn’t do enough to guarantee African Americans will have a seat at the table.

“And so my hope is that we can have something that's going to be reflective of the population,” Jones said.

Jones and other Democrats are also worried that Virginia Supreme Court, which was mostly appointed by Republicans, could end up ultimately drawing the map if the commission ends in a gridlock.

But Brian Cannon, director of the advocacy group OneVirginia2021, said voters should be more worried about partisan lawmakers than courts. He thinks the legislature should pass a bill requiring the court to appoint an expert, who would follow pre-set rules on partisanship and contiguity of the districts.

Cannon argued that even courts with a heavily partisan makeup tend to appoint experts to draw maps who are non-partisan. 

“That person usually produces straight-down-the-middle maps,” Cannon said.

Republicans, who reluctantly came to embrace the amendment in the 2019 session, have said Democrats will be walking back on their promises if they fail to pass the amendment.

The amendment only needs a simple majority to pass; last year it sailed through the House on an 83-15 margin and was passed unanimously by the Senate.

If the redistricting amendment passes in 2020, voters will see it on the ballot next November.

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