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Newly in charge, Virginia Democrats still support redistricting reform

February 4th, 2020, 8:25pm by Aaron Barden


Hi! I’m Aaron Barden, legal analyst for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. I’m in Richmond following the redistricting legislation. Democrats are newly in charge of the General Assembly – and they’re still in favor of reform. Today I witnessed bipartisan action to strengthen and improve the redistricting amendment – real progress!

First, a basic review.

In 2019, the General Assembly passed a constitutional amendment to create the Virginia Redistricting Commission, a hybrid commission of 8 legislators and 8 citizens. The Republican majority, perhaps sensing potential electoral doom in the November election, may have wanted to limit future offenses. With an uncertain future, Democrats may have had a similar feeling. And so the amendment passed with a bipartisan vote.

But it’s not law yet. Under the Virginia constitution, the amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 18, has to pass again this session to get onto this November’s ballot for voters to approve. Then it’s the law.

Now that they have single-party control of government, Democrats could theoretically walk away from reform and keep all the marbles for themselves. In today’s Senate Privileges & Elections Committee hearing, here’s what they did instead.

By itself, the amendment isn’t that strong. It sets up a commission, but doesn’t limit bad partisan outcomes. It also doesn’t fully protect racial and ethnic minorities or other communities of interest. Legislators proposed a slew of “enabling legislation” to fix that.

Of all those possibilities, a Senate committee today focused on a bill listing criteria for a fair plan, SB717 (sponsor: McClellan, passed: 9-6), and a piece of enabling legislation, SB203 (Lucas, 13-2), in addition to the second reading of the constitutional amendment (Barker, 13-1). These are good bills.

SB203 (which is identical to HB758 in the other chamber) is enabling legislation, i.e. it is meant to be implemented specifically if the constitutional amendment is approved by voters. It requires commissioners to be diverse, lack conflicts of interest, and apply for the position. There must be public hearings, a Commission website, and publication of precinct maps/election results & shapefiles. Importantly, SB203 repairs an objection by Democrats that a deadlock gets turfed to the state Supreme Court. That was claimed to be a problem because it might give the Court free rein. SB203 says that if a deadlock occurs, legislative leaders will send names of candidate special masters to the Court, who will pick two masters, one from each party.

In addition, SB203 contains fairness criteria – criteria that govern the district map that the Commission would produce. These criteria would protect communities of color through language similar to the Voting Rights Act, which means no matter what the Supreme Court does nationally, Virginia voters will still be protected. SB203 also protects communities of interest, a broad category that includes cultural groups as well as other groups (for example, job sectors or shared environmental concerns). Prisoners will be counted at home, meaning no more prison gerrymandering. And, super-important – SB203 prohibits partisanship on a statewide basis! That’s very reminiscent of tests we’ve proposed at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

All of these were part of SB203 as passed by a bipartisan vote. However, there’s the possibility that the fairness criteria will be revisited by floor action – meaning they could be stripped out. That would be a setback, and one that reformers should watch out for.

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SB717 is interesting – it contains the same fairness criteria as SB203, but is standalone legislation. In other words, it doesn’t require the constitutional amendment in order to have force. It passed by a party-line vote. That could mean that Republicans prefer not to have the fairness criteria or to count prisoners in their home communities. It could also mean that they want to make sure any fairness criteria are only passed in conjunction with a Commission.

The story isn’t over yet. Next, the amendment and SB203 will go to the Senate Finance Committee. Then all three will go to the full Senate before crossing over to the House of Delegates. There are many steps ahead…but early indications are that redistricting reform is alive and kicking in the Old Dominion!

Tags: 2020 Election · Redistricting

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