RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- This election season, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that changes who has the power to draw political maps in Virginia. Now, lawmakers are laying out next steps.
After winning the approval of about 65 percent of voters, a bipartisan commission will be tasked with redistricting in 2021, as opposed to Democrats, the party currently in control of the state legislature. Supporters of the amendment have argued that this structure will prevent gerrymandering–the practice of manipulating district lines to unfairly favor one party.
Now that the idea has cleared a voter referendum, party leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly will appoint a total of four Republicans and four Democrats to sit on the commission. Those same leaders will craft a list of private citizens interested in serving. A panel of retired judges will later narrow that list down to eight members, who will sit alongside lawmakers throughout the process.
On Monday, the last day of the longest special session in recent memory, Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) said the General Assembly passed a budget amendment partially aimed at ensuring diversity on the commission.
“It basically says the eight people as a whole should represent the diversity of the population of Virginia,” Barker said. “It specifically states that there should racial, ethnic, geographic and gender differences.”
Additionally, the enabling legislation passed on Monday prohibits party leaders from appointing themselves to the commission. It also seeks to prevent conflicts of interest by banning family members and lobbyists from participating.
Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) said, while these safeguards are an improvement, the General Assembly needs to go even further in the future to improve transparency.
“I’d like to know, for example, the political contributions of the people appointed to the panel. Can someone buy their way onto this panel? We can do a lot better and I’ll be pushing for us to do a lot better in the regular session in 2021.”
Levine was among the House Democrats who opposed the constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall. Moving forward, he wants lawmakers to approve a non-partisan commission that removes legislators from the process entirely–something he believes is necessary to prevent incumbents from drawing lines that favor their own re-election. He also wants to lock in representation on the commission for Independents, not just Republicans and Democrats.
In 2021, Levine said he plans to back separate legislation to require public hearings before and after maps are drawn. He said this bill would also mandate all redistricting meetings be recorded and posted, including potential interventions by the Supreme Court of Virginia.
As the work to select commission members unfolds in the coming months, the process is being further complicated by an uncertain timeline for obtaining population data.
With the coronavirus pandemic causing delays to the U.S. Census, it’s still unclear if the bipartisan commission will get the updated numbers they need to complete redistricting in 2021 before every member of the House of Delegates is up for re-election. The impending races, which will shape control of the chamber, mean Virginia has a tighter turn-around time for finalizing district lines than most other states.
Some have raised concerns that these elections will have to be based on current maps if the redistricting process can’t be completed on schedule.
“There was a lot of concern about that but, based upon the most recent information we have, we expect that we will get the data in time,” Barker said.
Barker said it’s very possible that the state will have to push back the June 2021 primary to late August. He said the general election set for November 2021 should be unaffected by the data delay.
Once new Census numbers are delivered, the commission will have 45 days to draw the lines for state legislative districts and 60 days to craft congressional maps.
The full General Assembly has to pass the maps the commission comes up with and, if the process fails twice, the Supreme Court of Virginia will take over.
Barker said the enabling legislation approved on Monday also lays out a bipartisan solution for possible court interventions in response to fears that years of Republican appointees could skew districts towards conservatives.
“We will come out with something that is fair and balanced between the two parties and will really reflect what is in the best interest of Virginians,” Barker said.
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