A state constitutional amendment, which proposes a new bipartisan redistricting commission different from the state’s current one-party system, is set to be on November’s ballot.
Passed both in the 2019 and 2020 session, Virginia’s redistricting commission would consist of 16 people, half members of the General Assembly and the other half citizens of the Commonwealth, to determine how the state will allocate votes. General Assembly members will be nominated by party leaders and equally represent both chambers of the state Senate and House of Delegates. Citizen members are selected by party leaders and confirmed by a panel of retired state judges. Together, both politicians and citizens are expected to create new voter geographies.
“Redistricting can be huge,” said Elizabeth Obenshain, president of the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County. “It gives the party in power the power to shape legislative districts that almost ensure that party remains in power.”
Every 10 years, the state collects Census data and applies it to how the U.S. House of Representatives, state Senate and House of Delegates election districts are assembled. The General Assembly, particularly the legislative majority, holds redistricting responsibility.
Giving state legislatures the responsibility to redraw district lines has created various battles within states including Virginia.
“In the 2010s, Republicans had majorities in both houses of the Virginia Legislature, and they had the power to redraw the district lines for the entire decade of 2010s,” said Nicholas Goedert, Ph.D., assistant political science professor at Virginia Tech. “The way they drew the district lines was actually mostly to concentrate Black voters in a small number of districts. It actually limits their representation.”
This tactic was challenged when three different lawsuits sued state elections officials over Virginia’s 2011 redistricting plans. Over the course of the 2010 decade, both the congressional and state assembly maps were struck down in federal courts for unconstitutional gerrymandering.
“It’s trying to be equally bipartisan,” Obenshain said.
The legislation is designed to end one-party gerrymandering by inviting the opposing party to the table. Despite its bipartisan nature, the legislation would continue to be a politically charged task, but equally representative of both parties' interests.
“I would anticipate a map that has reduced bias, doesn’t favor one party or another,” Goedert said. “ I wouldn’t necessarily expect as many competitive elections as we would see in an independent commission.”
Proposed Amendment 1 shifts the redistricting responsibility from the General Assembly and Governor over to Virginia’s Redistricting Commission. In case of gridlock within the commission, the Virginia Supreme Court will be given the authority to draw the state’s voting districts. The increase in judicial involvement is in an attempt to make the redistricting process more balanced.
“Judges, in their role in the courts, are supposed to be less partisan. In their selecting people to be on that panel, they will choose people who will make good decisions for the state,” Obenshain said. “Again, if that commission cannot reach agreement in the General Assembly, then it will go to the Virginia Supreme Court.”
House of Delegates and Senate Democrats are skeptical of the legislation’s success. Democrats are fearful of there being potential misrepresentation of Virginia voters if redistricting is directed to Virginia’s Supreme Court. Similar to national judicial nominations, Virginian Supreme Court judgeships are appointed by the General Assembly. In an op-ed of The Roanoke Times, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Del. Chris Hurst, D-District 12, argued that “the Supreme Court is not elected by the people, but elected by the General Assembly, without any input by the governor.” This partly comes out from their concern toward Republicans’ influence on current Supreme Court appointments.
A majority of Republicans are in support of proposed Amendment 1. With the support of a few democrats, supporters cite the bipartisan commission is more inclusive compared to the state’s current redistricting body. Citizen members have the opportunity to voice voter concerns alongside politicians. Additionally, supporters emphasize that proposed Amendment 1 would place transparency upon the entire redistricting process.
According to the Virginia Department of Elections, “all meetings of the Commission shall be open to the public” under the proposed amendment. The commission is obligated to host a minimum of three public hearings across the Commonwealth prior to creating any new voter maps. This feature is unlike Virginia’s current partisan redistricting structure that continues to create voter geographies behind closed doors.
In August, a lawsuit was filed by Paul Goldman, former chairman for the Democratic Party of Virginia from 1990-1993, stating concerns about the legislation’s wording as it appeared on the ballot. Despite Democrats’ worries, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the original wording.
Goedert points to New Jersey’s state redistricting commission as an example of what the Virginia commission and redistricting process would look like if Amendment 1 is passed, rather than California or Colorado’s commission, which is mostly independent of politicians.
“There are many states that are watching Virginia very closely,” Obenshain said. “Our Virginia League of Women Voters is being actively consulted by many southern states who are eager to try and replicate what we are doing because gerrymandering is such a problem in many southern states.”