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Northam Floats Idea of Special Session Over Redistricting

Senator George Baker Stands holding a binder.
Sen. George Barker says he's optimistic the Constitutional amendment will pass. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

A spokesperson for Governor Ralph Northam says he’s considering calling a special session and pushing his own legislation to help unite Democrats around a plan for redistricting.

Democrats are debating passing a Constitutional amendment designed to end gerrymandering that received broad bipartisan votes last year.

While that plan has received strong support in the Senate, the House of Delegates has delayed taking votes amid criticism of the plan.

An alternative proposal from Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News) would create a non-binding redistricting advisory committee that Price says is more inclusive and contains a longer timeline for public input than the amendment.

It remained unclear what role Northam would play in resolving the disagreement in his party.

In a statement, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said he was “reviewing all options to ensure a new, transparent process is in place for the 2021 redistricting."

“Those options include personally engaging with legislators to reach a solution, sending a bill down, or calling a special session,” she said in a statement.

Republican House minority leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) urged Northam to stay out of the issue.

“Muddying the waters at this point with new legislation is not helpful, and could well be an attempt to derail the amendment at the last minute,” Gilbert said.

A House election committee was scheduled to vote on the amendment on Friday. But the committee’s chair, Del. Joseph Lindsey (D-Norfolk), punted a vote on the amendment until Monday to allow Northam time to come up with what he described as a legislative alternative to Price’s plan.

The news of Northam’s involvement appeared to catch some lawmakers and advocates off-guard; Price said she was unaware of Northam’s plans and hadn’t been in contact with the administration.

The amendment’s Senate sponsor, Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax), said he’d spoken to Northam and believed the administration wanted lawmakers to pass something without its involvement. 

“And if we don’t get it resolved by the end of next week, then they may try to call a special session or do something else,” Barker said.

The General Assembly is set to adjourn on March 7.

Brian Cannon, director of the advocacy group OneVirginia 2021, said his group believed it had the votes to pass the amendment in the committee on Monday and again on the House floor.

“We feel pretty confident that this constitutional amendment will show again to have overwhelming, bipartisan support, just like it did in the Senate, and just like it did in this chamber last February,” Cannon said.

Amendments need to pass the General Assembly twice and then be approved by voters before they go into effect. Voters could see the amendment on the November ballot if lawmakers come to an agreement. 

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