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A Redistricting “Reform” Bill in Virginia Would Entrench Politicians Further

February 3rd, 2019, 2:20am by Sam Wang


No matter who is governor of Virginia by next week, Republicans have a problem: in 2021, Democrats may control redistricting. In response, Republicans have introduced ostensibly nonpartisan reform. Their “reform” is a hedge – one that weakens the ability of voters to remove legislators from office.

The Virginia redistricting bill HJ615 removes oversight by the governor, removes oversight by one chamber of the General Assembly over the other, and prevents a minority party from speaking for itself.

But why are Virginia legislators proposing any legislation at all? Because of an imminent threat to their power.

In 2011, Virginia was gerrymandered, both racially to hurt black voters, and on a partisan basis to benefit Republicans. We estimate that black voters (and therefore Democrats) lost three seats by being packed into a dozen districts in southeastern Virginia. And in 2017, Democrats just barely failed to take control of the House of Delegates despite winning 54% of the statewide vote. But that artificial dominance is about to fall. In a lawsuit concerning the House of Delegates map, Bethune-Hill v. Va. State Board of Elections, a federal court selected one of several maps offered by a Special Master (which we had analyzed). If the U.S. Supreme Court allows this new map, Democrats would be likely to take the chamber in 2019. If Democrats also take the Senate, they would control the legislative process – and redistricting.

In the face of such a potential flip, Republican leadership in the Virginia House has proposed a new redistricting process, HJ615. It is sold as nonpartisan reform. But Ben Williams and I find that it is more likely to entrench whatever party is already in control.

Here are three major problems.

One party would select the other party’s commissioners. The bill establishes a 12-member commission, 6 Democrats and 6 Republicans. Commissioners would be selected by the Speaker of the House, the Senate Committee on Rules, and the Governor. This means, among other things, that the Speaker, who will be a Democrat or a Republican, would select two Democratic and two Republican commissioners. One party gets to select who will represent the other party.

Each chamber would control its own map. HJ615 says that the requirement to advance a state House or Senate map out of the commission is approval from 3 of the 4 commissioners who represent that chamber. After referral to the chamber, only a simple majority of that chamber – but not the other chamber or the governor – is needed for final passage. The governor’s commissioners only vote on Congressional districts.

Partisan parity is required, but undefined. Districts drawn under the bill would be required to “preserve the political parity” between Democrats and Republicans. But parity is undefined. Does it mean that both sides get an equal share of seats no matter what the vote? That’s the current map, which is a partisan gerrymander.

Fundamentally, this bill undermines checks and balances. A core principle of American government is the ability of one branch to stop the excesses of another branch. This bill removes several checks. It removes the ability of one chamber of the General Assembly to act as a check on the other chamber. It removes the ability of the minority party to speak for itself. Finally and most importantly, it removes the governor from the process of redistricting.

This bill moves in the opposite direction as the reforms that are taking root across the country. It enhances the ability of politicians to entrench themselves in power.

P.S. There’s a competing bill on the Senate side. It establishes a 16-member commission composed of 8 legislators and 8 citizens. It doesn’t have any of the flaws listed above. It takes an optimistic view of the possibility of reaching a bipartisan decision: plans require 6 legislator and 6 citizen votes. It could work!

Tags: Redistricting

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