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Pandemic and Intra-Party Fights Complicate Virginia Redistricting

Cia Price sits at table in conference room watching legislative proceedings
Del. Cia Price watches a committee meeting on redistricting in January. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Virginia’s once-a-decade redistricting process is up in the air due to Census Bureau delays caused by the pandemic.

At the same time, lingering differences among Democratic lawmakers over a proposed constitutional amendment related to redistricting could further muddy the waters ahead of next year’s map-drawing.

The proposed constitutional amendment would create a bipartisan redistricting committee made up of eight lawmakers and eight citizens. They’d draw new maps every ten years, including in 2021. Supporters pitch the commission as a permanent way to blunt the forces of partisan gerrymandering, though critics say that was partially accomplished with other  legislation passed this year.

Either way, redistricting hinges on updated census data. And because of COVID-19, it’s coming in up to four months late, with the bureau handing over data by July 31, 2021 instead of April 1.

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax), vice chair of the House privileges and elections committee, said that probably wouldn’t leave enough time to draw new maps in Virginia's off-year election calendar.

“If the maps aren't ready by August or September of next year -- and I don't think they will be -- I think we'll conduct November elections under the old lines,” Simon said. “The only question is whether that's for a one year term or another two year term.”

Under one scenario, the House would hold elections under its current maps in 2021 maps, then hold another special election in 2022 under new maps before returning to its usual election cycle in 2023. The possibility of holding state legislative elections three years in a row is not unprecedented. Court battles over redistricting caused a succession of elections from 1981 - 1983.

Brian Cannon, executive director of the redistricting advocacy group OneVirginia2021, said next year’s election schedule and maps could also be settled in courts.

There’s another potential problem. While Republicans broadly back the amendment, Democrats in the House and Senate failed to agree on key “ enabling legislation” spelling out rules for the proposed commission, like which citizens could join.

Cannon and other backers of the amendment blame Simon and allies like Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News) for scuttling the bill.

Price and Simon were part of late-session negotiations with Senate Democrats -- who, unlike House Democrats, broadly back the amendment -- over the bill. Those negotiations broke down when Simon pushed a new, backup plan creating an all-citizen redistricting committee if the amendment failed to pass.

Cannon contended the changes would have allowed a “Democratic gerrymandered commission,” a charge disputed by Price and Simon.

“Instead of just working on what they did agree with, which was the bulk of the enabling legislation, the House Democrats blew up the conference committee,” Cannon said.

Cannon said the enabling legislation could be addressed by a future General Assembly session as early as the August 18 special session and as late as next January’s regular session. And he argued most of the legislation could be addressed administratively even if lawmakers drag their feet.

“We should require it in the long run,” Cannon said. “But we know for sure that those legislative leaders are going to appoint a diverse group of folks.”

Price was less confident that even legislation would do enough to ensure the interests of minorities were well-represented on the commission.

She called for voters to reject the amendment and instead start from scratch next year with minority protections caked into the amendment itself, which is far harder to repeal. And she said politicians should be entirely absent from the commission -- a viewpoint held by OneVirginia2021 until they backed the compromise amendment that emerged last year.

“Even the most admirable and honorable of us still think that it would be a great idea for us to be reelected,” Price said. “And that is not the starting point from which fair and independent redistricting should start.”

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