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Proposals to Revamp Virginia Redistricting Clear First Hurdle

Del. Cia Price watches a vote at a subcommittee meeting on Friday.
Del. Cia Price watches a vote at a subcommittee meeting on Friday. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Democrats advanced competing plans to reshape Virginia’s redistricting process in a zippy House subcommittee meeting on Thursday.

The votes are the first this year in what is likely to be a series of debates in the House of Delegates over how to make good on long standing Democratic campaign promises to end gerrymandering.

Last year, lawmakers took the first of two votes to approve a bipartisan Constitutional amendment. It would create a 16-member commission that would take over redistricting duties from the full General Assembly. The plan would mark a significant change from the status quo, where lawmakers from the majority have drawn their own districts after the Census is released every ten years.

Most members of the black caucus in the House voted against the plan, which they said was negotiated hastily and failed to include enough protections for minority voters. Critics, who’ve become increasingly vocal since Democrats’ takeover of the legislature, say the amendment gives too much power to the Virginia Supreme Court, which would draw the maps if the commission reached a deadlock.

One plan up for consideration this year would build on the amendment, which needs approval again this year, with separate legislation. The bill would add criteria on diversity in the commission and set up limitations for the Court, including specifying how they would choose an expert to draw maps if the commission gridlocks.

Del. Schuyler VanValenberg (D-Henrico), who is sponsoring the so-called enabling legislation, said it would address “anxiety” he’d heard over the role of the Court by allowing each party to choose a map-drawing expert who work collaboratively.

“Who they choose have to fit certain criteria, so we can't just pick Joe Blow off the street,” VanValenberg told the subcommittee meeting on Thursday. “If the commission deadlocked, they'd be throwing it to a second, mini-commission.”

Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News) said she had a hand in crafting that legislation. But she also spoke to a number of concerns around the amendment, ranging from a compressed timeline to the possibility of the commission gridlocking and sending maps to the Supreme Court.

“There are some significant flaws that could play to a pretty powerful minority to be able to shut the process down,” Price said.

Price is advancing a competing bill that would set up a 16 member commission this year, with the idea of starting fresh on a new amendment next year. The amendment would include diversity criteria baked in rather than as add-on legislation that could be rescinded if Democrats lose the majority, Price said.

“We are the most diverse General Assembly that we've ever been, we’re the most diverse state that we've ever been,” Price said. “Why would we not want to make sure that that is a part of the Constitution?”

Price’s initial proposal called for an all-citizen commission. The latest iteration includes eight lawmakers on the 16 member-commission; Price said she’d been told her prior version wouldn’t have enough votes in her caucus.

Both plans are up for votes in a full House committee on Friday. A third proposal from Del. Mark Levine effectively died in the sub-committee votes on Thursday.

Any plan to alter the amendment may run into Democrats in the Senate, where lawmakers in both parties have publicly backed last year’s amendment.

Republicans have accused Democrats of getting cold feet now that they're in the majority.

“I know there are several bills being considered to replace the bipartisan amendment that passed this very chamber last year with over 80 votes," said Del. Jason Miayres (R-Virginia Beach) in a floor speech on Tuesday. “But simple, stand-alone legislation won’t undo Article 2, Section 6 of our Constitution.” 

Ben Paviour covers state politics for VPM News with a focus on accountability journalism.