AFTER weeks of dithering, the
House of Delegates finally
managed to pass one of the most important pieces of legislation in decades: a constitutional amendment (SJ 18) that would, if approved by voters, turn over the task of redrawing legislative and congressional districts to an independent commission following the 2020 Census.
After bitterly complaining about Republican gerrymandering for years and after nearly a decade of court battles, it appeared that internal in-fighting among the new Democratic majority would torpedo the amendment, which was passed last session by a huge bipartisan majority in both chambers.
However, at the eleventh hour, nine brave Democratic House members broke ranks to join their minority Republican colleagues to pass the amendment a second time so it can go on the ballot in November. It was disappointing that Del. Josh Cole, D–Fredericksburg, was not among them, even though the ballot snafus caused by gerrymandered split precincts during his first 28th District race made national news.
The constitutional amendment, which was first introduced last session by Del. Mark Cole, R–Fredericksburg, creates a 16-member Virginia Redistricting Commission consisting of eight citizens and eight state legislators (two Republicans and two Democrats from each chamber) that would submit a redistricting map to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. If it failed to pass, or the governor vetoed it, the Virginia Supreme Court would draw up the new district lines.
Last February, this bipartisan plan passed by an 83–15 margin in the House and unanimously in the state Senate. In Virginia, a proposed constitutional amendment must be passed by two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly and then put to voters the following November before it goes into effect.
After its overwhelming acceptance last year, there should have been few objections to passing the same amendment a second time, but the new House majority balked. House Speaker Eileen Fuller–Corn, D–Fairfax, disingenuously claimed that the amendment “fails to prevent politicization of map-drawing and does not sufficiently ensure inclusion of communities of color in the redistricting process.”
If that were the case, why did she and her fellow Democratic House members vote for the identical language last year?
The amendment finally passed the House, but by a much closer 54–46 margin after the state Senate had already approved it by a lopsided 38–2 vote.
Virginians should be under no illusions that the 16-member redistricting commission will be completely free of political intrigue. Half of the commissioners will be sitting legislators evenly divided between the two major parties, and the other half will be citizens chosen by retired judges, who themselves were elevated to the bench by the General Assembly. There will undoubtedly still be bitter battles over each precinct in hotly contested areas.
But the commissioners will eventually have to come up with a compromise plan—in public—on new legislative and congressional districts because if they don’t, the maps they draw up can be either voted down by the General Assembly or vetoed by the governor. Then the Virginia Supreme Court would step in and finish the job. The threat of that should be enough to at least keep the worst instincts of both parties in check, particularly in our data-driven era, when the temptation to use computerized gerrymandering to tip the electoral scales in one’s favor is greater than it ever was.
This constitutional amendment cannot and will not guarantee that candidates for public office will not try to use every political trick in the book to gain a competitive advantage. But voters can make sure in November that blatant partisan gerrymandering is not one of them.