The majority of Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment this week aimed to prevent and stop political gerrymandering by changing the Commonwealth’s redistricting process.
Sixty six percent of Virginians answered yes to constitutional amendment question #1 on ballots and, overall, voters in every locality were in support except for Arlington, while 34 percent voted no to the question, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
“This is the most comprehensive redistricting reform to ever get through a state legislature and we were absolutely thrilled,” Brian Cannon, executive director of Fair Maps VA, a nonprofit that pushed for the amendment, told The Virginia Star. “Not only did Virginians understand what they were doing, but they did it in such an overwhelming fashion with two out of every three voters saying they wanted this amendment in the constitution.”
Redistricting is constitutionally mandated to take place every ten years after the most recent U.S. Census and is supposed to begin in February, but could get pushed to the summer because of delays in population data thanks to the pandemic.
Amendment #1 will switch the responsibility of drawing the state’s congressional and legislative districts from the Virginia General Assembly to a 16-member bipartisan redistricting commission of citizens and legislators.
The newly-approved redistricting commission will consist of eight lawmakers and eight citizens. The leaders of the Senate and House will choose the eight legislators from the two parties, meaning four Republicans and four Democrats.
The eight citizen members will be picked by a selection committee of five retired circuit judges. Four of the judges will be chosen by the leaders of the Senate and House, and then those judges select the fifth. The selection committee will then choose citizens from two lists of 16 applicants provided by the legislative leaders.
Among General Assembly members some support the redistricting commission while others do not.
Proponents of the commission, like Cannon and Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington), argue it will bring necessary fairness and transparency to the process, and ultimately stop the political party in power from gerrymandering state and local districts to their advantage.
“People are fed up with politicians rigging the system, so it’s much needed and not a minute too soon to get this reform in the state constitution,” Cannon said.
Opponents, such as Del. Mark Levine (D-Arlington) and the entire Black Caucus in the House of Delegates, say the commission selection process is flawed and will lead to more partisan gerrymandering by hand-picked legislators.
“I think the amendment was deceptive,” Levine said in an interview with The Star. “I think that many, many voters want to end gerrymandering and the people who put forward this amendment deceptively claimed that it would.
“My real goal is fairness and I really would prefer that it were only citizens [on the redistricting commission]. I don’t think legislators should be on the commission.”
In order for a citizen to be eligible for the commission, they must be a resident of Virginia, be a registered voter for three years prior to applying and have voted in at least two out of the last three general elections.
There are also a number eligibility exemptions, including any person that: has held or sought public or political party office, is or has been employed by a member of Congress or the Assembly, is or has been employed by any federal, state or local campaigns or a political party, among others.
In order to bring more transparency to the work of the commission, meetings and hearings will be open for the public to attend and participate, and before proposing or voting on any new district drawings at least three public hearings will be held throughout Virginia where the public can issue comments.
Now that the amendment has passed Governor Ralph Northam will amend the state budget, passed last month by the General Assembly, to include compromised language enabling the redistricting commission as part of the deal brokered between Senate and House Democrats.
Part of language will say the selection commission members must account for the Commonwealth’s ethnic, gender, racial and geographic diversity, and that party leaders from the Senate and House cannot appoint themselves for the commission.
According to Cannon, the first stages of forming the commission will start on November 15 and then the full commission has to be “up and running by February 1st.”
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Jacob Taylor is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network. Follow Jacob on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Virginia Capitol” by Skip Plitt – C’ville Photography. CC BY-SA 3.0.