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Virginians to vote on proposed amendment for bipartisan redistricting commission

A voter casts a ballot in Arlington on Sept. 18, the first day of early voting. Virginia voters will decide the fate of two proposed constitutional amendments in the general election. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
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RICHMOND — Virginia voters will decide next month whether to approve a constitutional amendment creating a bipartisan commission to draw political boundaries in hopes of ending partisan and racial gerrymandering.

“Amendment #1,” as it appears on general election ballots, would shift the task of redistricting from the governor and General Assembly to a panel composed of lawmakers and citizens.

One other proposed constitutional amendment also appears on the Virginia ballot: to allow military veterans on 100 percent disability to exclude a single car or pickup truck from personal property taxes. Fully disabled veterans are already exempt from Virginia real estate taxes on their primary residence, thanks to an amendment passed a decade ago.

Politicians from both major parties long have promised to create a better system for redistricting in Virginia, which draws new boundaries every 10 years but has seen recent Republican-led efforts overturned in federal court as racially gerrymandered.

The proposed amendment was advanced by Republicans last year when they were the legislature’s majority party and has caused a rift among Democrats, who are now in control of the General Assembly.

Divided Democrats in Virginia House pass proposed amendment for redistricting commission

The state Democratic Party officially opposes it, and most Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against it in this year’s legislative session. But nine Democrats in the House and all but two in the Senate joined Republicans in supporting the amendment.

“I think we’re a big-tent party,” state Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker said this week when asked about the split. “But I’m not sure everybody took a real hard look at this. . . . The bottom line is it’s not nonpartisan redistricting.”

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) has been charging Democrats with “hypocrisy” for their wavering on the amendment and urging support for it on social media.

“Don’t let politicians rig the district maps and choose their voters rather than the other way around,” he said last month on Facebook. “Amendment 1 will take redistricting out of the smoke filled rooms and into the light of day where citizens can see how it happens.”

Amendment supporters charge that some Democrats would rather use their newfound majorities to draw maps that will favor their party. Political boundaries for the state legislature and congressional seats will be redrawn next year using data from this year’s U.S. census.

“The majority party always opposes reform, like clockwork. It’s predictable,” said Brian Cannon, who heads a group called Fair Maps VA, an offshoot of the nonpartisan group OneVirginia2021 that promotes the amendment. Fair Maps VA will have spent about $2 million since July on urging Virginians to vote “yes,” Cannon said.

The plan contained in the amendment would create a 16-member commission that includes eight lawmakers — two from the House and two from the Senate appointed by Democratic leaders, and the same number appointed by Republicans in both chambers.

The other eight members would be citizens appointed by a panel of five retired circuit court judges. The panel of judges would be appointed from a list created by the Supreme Court of Virginia, with four chosen by both parties in the General Assembly and the fifth chosen by the judges themselves.

The judges would select the citizen commissioners from lists compiled by both parties in the General Assembly. The full commission would then choose one of its citizen members as chair.

Once the commission comes up with a set of maps, the General Assembly would vote on the plan as submitted, with no changes. If that vote fails, the commission would try again. If the General Assembly still doesn’t approve, the state Supreme Court would draw the maps.

Virginia law requires a proposed constitutional amendment to be approved in the General Assembly for two consecutive years before going to the voters. When Republicans made this proposal in 2019, all but a handful of Democrats supported it.

Some Virginia Democrats want to hit the brakes on nonpartisan redistricting plan

But this year, as it was up for a second vote, most Democrats in the House rebelled. Some members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus complained that the amendment does not require diverse representation on the commission and does not incorporate language from the federal Voting Rights Act laying out guidelines for racial equity.

Opponents also note the commission’s structure would allow two members of one party to block a proposed map. They also dislike allowing the state Supreme Court to resolve a stalemate, arguing that most of the justices have been appointed by Republican majorities in the legislature.

“It empowers partisan leaders and enshrines this power into the constitution,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the Black Caucus. And because the amendment contains no explicit instructions about equal representation, “it does absolutely nothing to end gerrymandering based on race or party,” Bagby said.

The Virginia conference of the NAACP came out against the amendment this week, citing similar concerns.

Cannon counters that while the amendment doesn’t contain specific language from federal law, it instructs the commission to follow the principles set out by both the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection.

“For the first time ever in Virginia history, racial gerrymandering would be illegal in the state constitution,” Cannon said.

He also pointed out that under the current system, if the minority party filed suit against a new map, the case would go to the Virginia Supreme Court anyway.

“Here’s how it compares to the current system: It’s an improvement,” Cannon said. Though a lifelong Democrat, he said he has no faith in politicians of either party to handle redistricting directly. “I don’t trust them not to gerrymander or to do something better because they haven’t proven that they could.”