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Push for Redistricting Reform Still Alive in Virginia

Hopes for nonpartisan redistricting in Virginia got new life Friday morning even after Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates rolled back their once strong support.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Hopes for nonpartisan redistricting in Virginia got new life Friday morning even after Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates rolled back their once strong support.

Earlier in the week, Delegate Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, suggested the effort was all but dead and reform advocates began to extinguish their hopes. But considering the constitutional amendment had been floating off the House calendar since its passage in the Senate 10 days ago, its addition to a committee’s docket Friday morning gives the amendment at least one more hearing.

“Amending the Constitution of Virginia requires a rigorous process over multiple legislative sessions and demands the utmost prudence and responsibility,” Bagby said in a statement. “We will take all the time available to us during the remainder of the legislative session to ensure the best outcome for all Virginians.”

His backtracking earned the ire of bipartisan redistricting advocate Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021. He and his nonprofit group have been pushing to pull politics out of the process for the last seven years.

While Cannon is among those who are staying hopeful, he fears the only reforms he’ll see in time for the 2021 redraw will be a third party commission, similar to the powerless commission that helped draw flawed maps in 2011.

“Are we actually going to enshrine this into the constitution or is it going to be an advisory commission that the General Assembly can just throw in the trash if they want to?” Cannon said in a phone interview.

Redistricting in Virginia has a tumultuous history. The lines drawn in 2011 by a Republican majority were found to be a racial gerrymander by the US Supreme Court. Those maps gave more overall seats to the GOP.

The high court ruling forced a redraw in time for the 2019 elections. While Democrats had already started to overcome the gerrymander, thanks in part to changing demographics and anti-President Donald Trump sentiment, last year’s House and Senate races ended with Democratic majorities in both chambers for the first time in over two decades.

The process to amend the state’s constitution is an arduous one and was started last year. Perhaps both fearing their fate, Republicans and Democrats came together and took the first step by passing a constitutional amendment to establish an independent commission for nonpartisan redistricting. If it passes a second time this year, it then goes before voters on the November ballot.

But now, with Democrats in control, that support has started to slip. Even before this year’s legislative session began, those who supported the measure last year began to criticize the plan, mostly because of its reliance on the GOP-friendly Virginia Supreme Court if disputes arise.

“I don’t trust the conservative Supreme Court to draw the lines fairly,” said one-time supporter Delegate Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, in a video posted last December.

When this year’s session got underway, the House’s opposition to the constitutional amendment was on full display. While an effort to establish criteria and a nonpartisan committee has succeeded so far, the full amendment giving teeth to the body was never assigned to a House committee, something House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, has control over.

Filler-Corn told local media outlets she did not plan to bring up the House version of the bill in time for the session deadline, which passed Thursday, but the docketing of the Senate version could still allow for the amendment’s passage.

In the face of this power move, Republicans were unafraid to remind Democrats where they stood on the issue last year. During Thursday's House floor session, Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, chastised the new majority for its willingness to renege on an issue many of them ran on.

“The majority in this chamber have made nonpartisan redistricting a centerpiece of their campaigns for a year and we cannot abandon that,” Gilbert said. “We committed to that process… but it doesn’t feel like we’ve committed to this anymore.”

Gilbert’s comments also drew snickers from some House members. While he and others have hit Democrats hard for their newfound disinterest in redistricting reform, Delegate Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, took to social media to remind constituents where this issue started.

“Why isn’t the story about how Republicans had 20 years to reform the redistricting process but stalled until they were on the verge of losing power?” he tweeted Thursday night. “Now they’re pushing for a flawed amendment that gives them a backdoor way to retain control of the process.”

It’s this memory of how things ran for the last decade, when every piece of progressive legislation was often killed in committee without a recorded vote, that could be driving Democrats’ anti-reform sentiment.

“Although the Democrats were very supportive of this when they were in the minority, now that they are in the majority they are very tempted to do unto Republicans what was done to them,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.

But Farnsworth also pointed to the changing demographics in the state and said the redistricting fight might be unnecessary for Democrats.

“The 2020 census is going to create more districts in suburban areas where Democrats have been doing well,” he said. “[They] probably don’t need to control the process to maintain the majority.”

Even if the amendment is approved again by lawmakers, the public might not be interested in voting for it. Farnsworth pointed to a September 2019 poll showing support for the effort was only at 42% statewide. He said he doesn’t think Democrats going back on their redistricting promise will affect voters’ views in 2021, when delegates are up for reelection again.

The newly docketed Senate version of the amendment is now before the House Privileges and Elections Committee, which meets on Friday mornings. If the measure fails to get a vote, it’ll be up to Democratic Governor Ralph Northam to decide whether to call a special session to address the issue. His office did not return a request for comment Friday.

A companion bill for the Senate’s amendment also passed a House committee Friday morning. The bill adds some guardrails to the independent committee and Virginia Supreme Court if disputes over district lines end up there. A House version that instead returns disputes to the General Assembly, lessening the nonpartisan nature of the effort, is set to be heard in the Senate next week.

Filler-Corn’s spokesperson Jake Rubenstein did not say exactly what Friday’s docketing of the Senate version meant.

“[The Senate bill] is alive,” Rubenstein said in an email when asked if putting the bill on the schedule should give redistricting reform supporters any hope. “No update.”

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