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Five Key Points on Virginia’s Redistricting Amendment

A voter casts a ballot in poll booth
A voter casts a ballot in February's Democratic presidential primary. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

For decades, Virginia politicians have carved up their own legislative districts, squashing and stretching lines into imaginative shapes to preserve their power.

Tucked away on Virginia ballots is a question that advocates say would change that system: Should the General Assembly hand over the once-a-decade redistricting process to a commission?

The actual question is wordier than that. And the debate surrounding it gets wonky really quickly. Here’s a guide to help you understand what’s going on.

1. The commission would be bipartisan, but not fully independent. 

The proposed constitutional amendment would strip the dominant political party -- currently, Democrats -- of their ability to draw legislative districts. A bipartisan, 16-person commission would take up the task instead, with the Virginia Supreme Court as a backstop if they repeatedly fail to find consensus. 

Half of the commission would be made up of lawmakers, split evenly between the two major parties. Retired circuit court judges would choose the remaining eight members from a list submitted by party leaders in the House of Delegates and Senate. The General Assembly would also take an up or down vote on whatever maps the commission draws.

The amendment’s critics argue politicians shouldn’t have such a heavy role in the process. But unlike other states, Virginia doesn’t have a means for voters to change the constitution without involving lawmakers. And those politicians were never going to voluntarily step away from the redistricting process, argues William and Mary law professor Rebecca Green.

“I think it would have been truly extraordinary -- historic, even -- for the legislature to vote twice to take itself entirely out of the process,” Green said. “That just wasn't gonna happen.”

2.  The amendment doesn’t outlaw partisan gerrymandering, but it makes it harder.

There’s nothing explicit in the amendment itself that bars the commission from drawing lopsided maps to favor one party. Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) and other critics of the amendment argue that prohibition should be baked into the amendment. 

Aird also argues that the amendment is also missing language that would ensure the commission is diverse. “It doesn't protect the needs and the interests of black and brown communities, both in the map drawing process and via representation on this commission that's to be formed,” Aird said.

The commission operates by consensus; maps need approval from at least six out of eight citizens and an identical number of lawmakers to pass. A new law passed this year bans partisan, racial, and prison gerrymandering. Aird and other critics argue a future legislature could opt to repeal that law; repealing an amendment is much trickier.

3. The amendment would increase transparency.

The amendment would put an end to the smoky back rooms of yore. All of the redistricting commission’s meetings would be open to the public. The commission would also have to solicit comments from the public in at least three meetings before getting to work. Internal communications and messages from outside groups would be considered public information.

“I've studied transparency and redistricting,” Green said. “When the process exists in the sunlight, there's a lot more accountability, there's a lot less wheeling and dealing.” 

4. National voting rights groups support it.

National voting rights groups have lined up in support of the amendment, including the League of Women Voters, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. It’s been endorsed by major editorial boards ranging from the Washington Post to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

Democrats in the House of Delegates and some grassroots party members are campaigning against the amendment. They argue they could come up with something better given more time.

5. The clock is ticking.

Virginia’s next round of redistricting begins next year. If voters approve the amendment, the commission would begin to form almost immediately. If they reject it, the General Assembly would retain the power to draw its own maps. 

Aird said lawmakers could come up with a better, more comprehensive plan beginning next year. She pointed to a proposal for an all-citizen commission from Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News) that passed the House as a good starting point. 

“Not only do we have time to get it right for 2021, but we do have time to craft a new constitutional amendment,” Aird said.

Getting another amendment to voters would be no easy feat. A new constitutional proposal would have to pass the legislature again twice -- before an election and after -- and then go back to voters. In the meantime, redistricting powers would rest where they always has: with politicians.

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