Virginia’s Fight Against Gerrymandering Advances

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia’s hope for nonpartisanship in time for next year’s constitutionally mandated redistricting survived a state House committee vote Monday evening.

In a 13-to-8 vote across party lines, the Democrat-controlled Privileges and Elections Committee expressed doubt during the public hearing before voting in support of the measure. The bill goes to the full House, where advocates say they have the votes to get it over the finish line.

If so, it will appear as a referendum on the ballot in November.

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

Delegate Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, and every other Republican on the committee supported the bill. He called its passage a now-or-never moment.

“This is the only vehicle moving forward this year and it won’t move again until 2030,” he said before voting for the bill. “It might not be exactly what I like, [but] I think it’s the right move for the Commonwealth.”

But Democrats were concerned about the language of the amendment.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, who voted for the amendment last year, became its loudest critic once his party took control of the House and Senate for the first time in two decades.

“There’s no barring gerrymandering in the constitutional amendment and no way to appeal to those maps,” said Levine, who took issue with the conservative Virginia Supreme Court’s role in drawing the map if the nonpartisan effort fails to coalesce around one.

“Gerrymandering is allowed if the state supreme court draws it,” Levine said.

Redistricting in Virginia has a tumultuous history. The U.S. Supreme Court found the lines drawn in 2011 by a Republican majority were racially gerrymandered. Those maps favored Republicans.

The ruling forced a redraw in time for 2019 elections. Democrats had already started to overcome the gerrymander, thanks to changing demographics and anti-Trump sentiment, and the 2019 House and Senate races ended with Democratic majorities.

The process to amend the state constitution is arduous and began last year.

Perhaps both fearing their fate, Republicans and Democrats took a first step by passing a constitutional amendment to establish an independent commission for nonpartisan redistricting.

But now, with Democrats in control, that support has started to slip. A House version of the amendment never made it to committee, and the Senate version that passed Monday was docketed only after outcries from public-interest groups such as the League of Women voters.

While the effort is still far from the ballot box, advocates were in high spirits compared to previous weeks, when deadlines for the bill had appeared to lapse.

Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021, which has been fighting for nonpartisan redistricting in Virginia since 2013, was cautiously optimistic after the Monday night vote.

“This is the second-to-final step and we look forward to the vote on the floor,” he said. “No Champagne yet.”

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