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Redistricting Amendment Clears Key Vote Over Objections of Some Democrats

Map of Virginia's 72nd House of Delegates district
Redistricting reform advocates say Virginia's 72nd House of Delegates has become a textbook illustration of gerrymandering gone wrong. (Map: Virginia Public Access Project)

A proposed constitutional amendment designed to end gerrymandering ahead of once-a-decade redistricting is one step closer to passing after clearing a committee vote on Monday.

The amendment hands over redistricting to a 16 person commission -- half lawmakers, half citizens. It’s one of two plans being considered by the General Assembly, and the only option that would require the legislature to hand over its map-drawing powers to a commission.

That would mark a significant change from the status quo, where generations of lawmakers from both parties have drawn their own maps behind closed doors.

While the amendment has sailed through the state Senate, it’s faced a rockier reception in the House of Delegates, which has stalled taking up the measure. That changed Monday night when a House elections panel finally took up the measure and passed it on a 13-8 vote.

The amendment now heads to the full House for a floor vote despite many Democrats on the committee voting against it. Advocates say it has the votes to pass a floor vote given broad Republican support. If it does, voters can expect to see it on the ballot in November.

Even backers of the amendment conceded on Monday that it is flawed, but spun that as a virtue -- a result of bipartisan compromise last year when Republicans held a narrow majority in both chambers.

For the amendment’s Democratic critics, those negotiations resulted in a “fatally flawed” bill unfit to be cemented into the state constitution -- a phrase that was volleyed around repeatedly in Monday’s committee meeting.

“What we have before us is the only thing that we could get a Republican legislature last year to pass,” said Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax).

Critics are especially worried that two lawmakers on the commission could deadlock the map-drawing process, sending that authority to the Virginia Supreme Court. That the court was mostly appointed by Republicans was not lost on the committee’s chair, Del. Joseph Lindsey (D-Norfolk).

“That would be the equivalent for me of asking the drug addict to watch my pharmacy while I go to lunch,” Lindsey said. “I just have that measure of cynicism.”

Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News), meanwhile, argued that minority protections should be baked into the language of the amendment rather than tacked on as legislation, which is far easier to repeal.

“Voting right protections for my community are not like some silver lining,” Price said.

But advocates for the amendment pointed out that Price’s alternative bill, which would create an advisory commission, could ultimately be ignored by legislators next year when new maps for the next decade will be drawn.

“The final decision is up to the General Assembly, so it’s really no real different than what we’ve had in the past,” said Del. Mark Rush (R-Montgomery).

Republicans came around to redistricting reform late last session. The party’s national REDMAP initiative in 2009 resulted in legislative maps drawn to favor the GOP in statehouses across the country, including in Virginia. A dozen of those House districts were later thrown out by a federal court for racial gerrymandering.

Democrats, meanwhile, gerrymandered Virginia’s legislative maps in past decades to try to stem off growing electoral advances by Republicans.

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