An “independent redistricting commission” split evenly between Republicans and Democrats would recommend political boundaries under a Virginia constitutional amendment proposed by Del. Mark Cole, R–Spotsylvania County.
But the General Assembly would still have the final say over new district lines, one of several key differences between Cole’s proposal and a recently outlined plan by anti-gerrymandering advocates.
Cole’s plan would prohibit politicians and congressional or General Assembly employees from serving on the eight-member commission, which would propose one or more political maps during the 2021 redistricting process. Lawmakers in Virginia and most other states draw district lines, leading to complaints about politicians picking their voters.
The General Assembly would have to pass Cole’s constitutional amendment in two consecutive years, and voters would have to then approve it in a referendum. Cole said he is not convinced independent commissions reduce gerrymandering—the act of drawing political districts for partisan advantage—but that he wants to put the issue before voters.
“It’s impossible to take the politics out of an inherently political process,” Cole said. He cited a study by political scientists from Yale University and the University of California that said independent commissions “may not be as politically neutral as theorized.”
Cole’s proposal will not be the only redistricting-related amendment during the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 9.
OneVirginia2021, a redistricting reform advocacy group, supports a constitutional amendment to establish a 10-member redistricting commission with three Republicans, three Democrats and four independents. Under that proposal, crafted by a bipartisan group of former lawmakers and constitutional scholars, the General Assembly and governor would not be able to alter the commission’s approved map.
Lawmakers are expected to sponsor that amendment soon.
Under Cole’s proposal, the commission’s recommendations would be sent to lawmakers as a bill. The General Assembly could make changes to the bill, but Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam could not veto the final product.
University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth said Cole’s proposal to include only Democrats and Republicans could lead to a lot of tie votes. Independent commissions in other states have members unaffiliated with either party. “Given the animosity between Democrats and Republicans these days, it might be very hard for such a commission to develop consensus on any line-drawing plan,” Farnsworth said.
The Rules committees in the House of Delegates and Senate each would appoint four members to the commission, according to Cole’s proposal.
Cole acknowledged the potential for deadlocks, adding: “If they don’t produce anything, then it will fall back in the lap of the legislature.”
He said he did not include independents because they can be hard to define in a state where voters do not register by party. “If you start saying you’re going to appoint people with no political affiliation, then that’s where the gamesmanship comes into play,” said Cole, who has criticized OneVirginia2021 as being a “partisan organization.”
Under the amendment backed by OneVirginia2021, the four General Assembly leaders from both parties and both chambers would appoint a selection committee made up of retired judges. Those retired judges would take applications from registered voters who want to serve on the redistricting commission before coming up with a list of 22 finalists.
The four political leaders would then be able to strike three candidates each—one from the opposing party and two independents—cutting the list down to the 10 final members. All of the commission’s meetings would be public and members would have to follow a set of criteria that includes keeping counties and cities intact whenever possible.
Cole’s amendment does not say whether the commission must meet publicly, nor does it outline criteria for drawing boundary lines.
In 2011, the Democratic-leaning city of Fredericksburg was split into House districts 28 and 88 in what critics call a classic case of gerrymandering. Some people say that decision is ultimately to blame for the more than 100 misassigned voters in the 28th District race that Republican Bob Thomas won by 82 votes in 2017.
Cole, who represents the 88th District, said the city’s “split precincts,” where some voters receive 28th District ballots and others get 88th District ballots, caused the confusion. He unsuccessfully submitted bills to do away with those split precincts, and this year is proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow lawmakers to make “technical adjustments” to district lines in order to eliminate split precincts.
Wyatt Durrette, an attorney and the 1985 Republican nominee for governor, chaired the group that drafted the OneVirginia2021-endorsed amendment. In a statement to The Free Lance–Star, Durrette did not offer an opinion on Cole’s proposal, but said he looked forward to “a robust and detailed discussion” on the establishment of a redistricting commission.
“This is the year to improve Virginia’s redistricting process by amending our state constitution,” Durrette stated. “It’s important to have a transparent, independent commission guided by a clear set of rules.”
Democrats hope to win a majority in at least one chamber after this year’s election.
Farnsworth said a potential challenge for any redistricting measure is that Democrats “can taste being in the majority in at least one chamber” in 2020.
“And so, there might be a temptation on the part of some Democrats to do to Republicans what Republicans did to them,” he said. “Nonpartisan redistricting looks a lot more appealing when you’re in the minority, and substantially so.”