Virginians to Decide Fate of Controversial Redistricting Amendment

Virginia voters persuaded a federal judge in 2017 that 11 of the 12 election districts pictured in this 2011 map were racially gerrymandered by Republican lawmakers. (Image via Virginia’s Public Access Project)

Richmond, VA. (CN) — After nearly a decade, Virginia hopes to address its long history of political gerrymandering through a voter-approved constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall.

However, shifting power dynamics and compromises made by both parties as the deadline to redraw district line approaches have led to public inter party disputes and a divide between newer and more senior legislators as the public decides whether to alter the state’s founding document.

Redistricting is the process used to draw new maps every 10 years with the population count enumerated under the decennial national census. Next year, along with the rest of the country, Virginia will use that head count to redraw its 40 Senate and 100 House of Delegates seats.

Like the U.S. Congress, whoever holds the majority in these chambers holds the power to pass new laws or even hear legislation during the state’s annual General Assembly session. Those in power also, as the state’s Constitution dictates now, also have the power to redraw their own maps. 

In order to change that last part, it will require a constitutional amendment but amending Virginia’s constitution is rigorous. It takes the General Assembly approving the language of an amendment over two years with a House of Delegates election in between. The amendment then goes before voters on the November ballot and requires a majority to pass.

“If you want to test a man’s character, give him power,” said Delegate Jason Miyares, R-VA Beach, quoting former President Abraham Lincoln, as he reflected on the state’s – and his party’s – history of manipulating maps to benefit one party over the other. 

This U.S. Supreme Court-sanctioned act, known as political or partisan gerrymandering, and its demise was the original basis for the November’s amendment; instead of politicians drawing lines a non-partisan group would handle the issue. 

The current redistricting effort, set to go before voters this November, will create a bipartisan commission made up of eight legislators from both parties along with eight citizen appointees. 

This group of 16 will draw the map, vote on it with a supermajority required for passage before sending it to the Legislature for approval by both chambers. The amendment also opens up the process, forcing meetings and data to be available to the public rather than being kept shielded by legislative privilege which the state’s Supreme Court had previously affirmed. 

It does not offer specific rules for how those maps must be drawn, called criteria, for mapmakers, an issue that is at the core of disputes ahead of election day.

“What we’ve done traditionally is one side tries to rig the system to get an advantage over the other,” Miyares said in a phone interview. “Both parties have been guilty of it and used it to their own advantage.” 

This problem was highlighted over the last decade after Virginia’s 2011 map was challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before being struck as a racial gerrymander in 2019.

While the racial gerrymander illegally grouped some districts by race, the maps also carved out more districts for Republicans. President Barack Obama won over 50% of the state in 2012, but the map the conservative party drew the year before gave Republicans 68 of the state’s House of Delegates seats. 

The Supreme Court ordered redraw, however, created the exact problem the Republican majority in 2011 admitted they sought to avoid: Democrats gaining seats and taking control of both chambers over the last four years.

Miyares noted he was among the few members of the Virginia GOP who used his seat on the House’s election subcommittee to vote in favor of an earlier version of the redistricting  amendment in 2017. That vote led to him losing his committee seat but he said he doesn’t regret it and now supports the version set to go before voters this fall. 

“This is bipartisan not hyper partisan,” he said of the process created under the amendment. “Both parties have input rather than one party getting zero input.” 

The fight for a redistricting constitutional amendment in the state picked up steam when the non-profit One Virginia 2021, now called FairMaps Virginia, started in 2013.

“The party in power always fights it,” said Brian Cannon, Executive Director of FairMaps Virginia. “We believe this amendment gives us the best shots — the transparency and the bipartisan members, etc.”

But what Cannon and other amendment supporters consider to be a “best shot” isn’t enough for others who want an entirely nonpartisan redistricting process. 

“Nonpartisan is better than bipartisan,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. “But either is preferable to the spoils system which is what we have for the majority system right now.” 

Farnsworth tracked redistricting efforts across the country ahead of Virginia’s effort and his assessment is one that lines up with the about two dozen on the left who previously voted in favor of the effort in 2019 but back tracked on the second vote in 2020. 

And while the amendment squeaked by thanks to every Republican voting in support earlier this year, those who have flipped are now looking to the voters to say “no.”

“It was basically the only option at that point,” said state Senator Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, about his first vote on the effort. “It kept a hope alive.”

Surovell has a unique perspective. He first entered the House as a Delegate in 2010 before making the jump to the Senate in 2016. During that tenure the official, who represents part of the state’s more progressive Northern region, often found himself carrying progressive legislation that would die at the hands of conservative leadership right out of the gate. 

And while he voted yes in 2019, he has since taken issue with the lack of criteria defined in the amendment.

Criteria is used to set limits for map architects including equal population distribution between districts, preservation of communities of interest like cities and counties, avoiding racial or politically favorable options and considering the current location of incarcerated individuals, not their hometowns. 

Instead, the amendment only defines the group that makes the maps, not how they should draw it. 

“If that’s not in the constitution then it can be subject to political whims,” Surovell said.

Criteria was originally part of the amendment effort but after the state saw a blue wave in its 2017 election, and a possible second round of losses under the Supreme Court-ordered redraw in 2019, Republicans saw their majority hanging by a thread. With neither side knowing who would be in charge in 2021, compromises were made and the criteria was cut to garner GOP support. 

In response to that cut, Delegate Cia Price, D-Newport News, worked with her colleagues to develop additional bills which define that criteria, but only legislatively, meaning it can be changed by any party that regains control.            

Price had advocated for nonpartisan redistricting since she entered office in 2016. She also voted against the amendment both times, claiming instead of removing gerrymandering from the redistricting process it actually enshrines it. 

“I didn’t want to swap gerrymandering behind closed doors with gerrymandering in the public,” she said.

Price is now leading the charge in the “no” effort. She would rather the amendment fail and allow the Democratic-controlled Legislature to create a non-partisan committee through legislation during the 2021 session.

And while Republicans, including Miyares, claim Price and others simply want a return to the old ways, giving Democrats the chance to draw their own gerrymander, Price believes the newer, more progressive members of the House wouldn’t allow such a maneuver. 

 And while she’s listened to those in her party who see the amendment as the best possible solution for the time being, she believes that amending the state’s Constitution is not something to be rushed through. 

“As a Black woman in America who knows how important the constitution is to whether or not she has freedom, why would you put something in the constitution that you know you have to go back and fix?” she said. “I’m looking into the future well beyond me being in the House of Delegates.” 

Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, agrees with Price. While she voted yes on the amendment the first time around, she changed her vote to “no” this year. The uncertainty of who would control the Legislature led her to vote yes the first time around. But still in her first term, Guzman, like other recently elected progressive officials, doesn’t want to undermine the values she ran on. 

“Are we going to be okay with the status quo or actually be leaders and fight what we were fighting for years: nonpartisan redistricting,” she said. 

Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico County, who authored the amendment resolution on the ballot this year, is aware of its luke-warm support among his party members but points to two reasons why citizens should support it. 

“Functionally, what would be the best way to draw the lines and is this commission, even if it’s not perfect, is it good?” he asked. “The second issue is the politics of the Virginia General Assembly would not allow an independent commission.” 

He said transparency and citizen members will create more of a nonpartisan map than skeptics are concerned with. He also pointed to the 2019 session, which saw three different options for redistricting reform, including a non-partisan option. That option failed in both the House and Senate with bipartisan votes against it. 

“Would that change down the road? It could, but there’s no indication that it will,” he said. “The [Democratically controlled] Senate overwhelmingly rejected it and Republicans in the House all rejected it. I think there’s a lot of skepticism among House Democrats too.” 

Back on the right side of the aisle, Del. Dave LaRock, R-Frederick, is among the most conservative members of the House GOP who has thrown his support behind the amendment. 

“There will always be some division on what is an ideal set of boundaries,” said the delegate.

Miyares says the outcome of the amendment vote will define who draws the 2021 maps. If the effort fails, even if Price is right that newer Democrats would vote against another partisan gerrymander, he believes Democratic leadership will muster the votes to pass it.

Combine that with the sole opportunity to redraw lines only after the national census and he hopes those who once advocated for change will adhere to that promise.

“Nobody ran on redistricting reform in 2031,” he said.

Polling from early 2020 shows over 70% of the state supports the creation of a “redistricting commission and end partisan gerrymandering.” 

Farnsworth thinks that number should hold strong through election day, but Democrats who changed their vote have spent the better part of the last year publicly advocating against it. 

“Imagine you’ve written your legislator an impassioned plea to oppose an awful bill during the ‘21 GA session. She agrees that it’s awful & wants to vote against it in committee, but it’s being carried by 1 of the 8 legislators who can draw her out of her district,” wrote Democratic Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, in a recent tweet along with the hashtag  #voteNoon1.

The Democratic Party of Virginia, which has long advocated for some kind of redistricting reform, went as far as passing a resolution in June urging local committees to tell their members to vote no on the effort. 

The state’s Republican Party, on the other hand, is telling its members their vote for yes will be among their most important votes in 2020.

With less than 60 days till Virginians wrap up early voting there’s little indication on how the state will vote on the issue, but among the Democrats who still stand by the effort is State Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax.

“It’s a very cynical process whereby the party in power consolidated their power. They can eliminate people they don’t like… I don’t like it,” said the senator who’s seen his fair share of district map fights after being in the Legislature since 2002. 

“Anytime you put a group together, if they’re prominent in public life they are probably involved in some political system, but [the amendment’s option] is a much better process than just having the majority party draw their own lines,” he added. “It’s too much power to leave to one party.”

Back at GOP headquarters in Richmond, Republican Party of Virginia spokesperson John March agreed. 

“We need to pass the redistricting amendment like we need oxygen to breathe,” he said.

Virginians started early voting Friday but the outcome of the referendum won’t be known until after Nov. 3.

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