Virginians Seek Independent Body to Draw District Maps

OneVirginia2021 Executive Director Brian Cannon announces his group’s intention to propose a constitutional amendment to address Virginia’s redistricting legal woes. (Brad Kutner/CNS)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A non-partisan group is pushing for an amendment to Virginia’s constitution in the hopes of addressing the state’s ongoing legal fight with unconstitutional gerrymandering.

The members of OneVirginia 2012 made their efforts known Thursday just as the state General Assembly was gathering in Richmond for a special session to address court-ordered redistricting after it was found 11 districts were victims of racial gerrymandering.

“Virginia’s current system isn’t working,” said Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia 2021, as he announced his organization is forming a “Citizen’s Commission” to write the amendment mandating that  the state rely on an independent body to draft maps going forward, and seek legislators to sponsor it.

Cannon called the commission a way to “help Virginia comes up with a better way forward.”

Virginia is not alone in its attempts to reform its redistricting process. In 2018 alone, efforts to mandate that non- or bi-partisan groups to  draw legislative district maps are on ballots in Michigan, Colorado, and Utah, while Arkansas, Oklahoma, Ohio and Pennsylvania have already started the process of amending their constitutions to do the same.

The legal battle over Virginia’s legislative maps began in 2011. That’s when legislative map makers, aware of the need to create majority-minority districts, set a requirement of 55 percent minority in 12 districts.

But in 2012, voters from each of 12 challenged districts sued, and while a lower court upheld the maps, the U.S. Supreme Court, without issuing a formal decision, sent the maps back to the lower court saying it failed to see the unconstitutional nature of the racial gerrymander.

In June, U.S. District Judge Barbara Keenan released an opinion siding with the voters in 11 of the districts, saying the use of 55 percent as a benchmark was itself racially bias.

“The evidence shows that these race-based decisions dwarfed any independent consideration of traditional redistricting criteria,” she wrote. “A court could conclude that the legislature “relied on race in substantial disregard of customary and traditional districting practices.”

“Using race in the service of a legitimate goal does not alter the underlying fact that the legislature has selected voters for inclusion in a district based on race.”

Virginia Democrats released their own map on Wednesday with Democratic House Leader David Toscano saying it complies with both the court order and U.S. constitution.

“To date, we have seen no maps from the majority party to correct the problem,” Toscano said in a statement shortly after the map’s release.

According to the non-partisan Virginia Public Access project, the Democrat’s map impacts 29 districts, shifting 12 of those districts to the left and 17 to the right when compared to voter data from the 2009 governor’s race.

State legislative analyst Chaz Nuttycombe, who works on election forecasting for the nonpartisan election tracker Decision Desk HQ, described the democrat’s map as a “warning shot” to the VA GOP. He suggested the ruling party should consider efforts by some Democrats in recent years to create an independent redistricting commission, similar to the one proposed by OneVirignia2021.

“… Take the Dems’ offer of an independent nonpartisan redistricting commission now, or pay the price dearly during the 2020s after Democrats create a trifecta in 2019 (which they certainly will),” he said, referring to the state’s recent history of shifting to the left and his prediction it will lead to a majority in all three chambers in time for redistricting in 2021.

And while Democrats have submitted their own maps, little movement is expected from Virginia’s Republican party which currently holds power in both legislative branches. House Speaker Kirk Cox has asked the court to delay their October deadline while the body appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court saying  it would “ be premature” to change the maps before the higher court took up the issue.

Cox, shortly after the court ordered the redraw in June, cited Abbott v. Perez which found a Texas federal court overlooked “legislative good faith” when they said legislators racially gerrymandered the lone star state, as evidence for his case.

“As the Texas case shows, the Supreme Court is willing to overturn lower court decision in redistricting cases,” he said.

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