RICHMOND — A proposed constitutional amendment intended to prevent partisan gerrymandering advanced out of a House committee Monday, with a handful of Democrats helping Republicans fend off efforts to kill it.
The vote came three days after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) promised to break the legislative deadlock — possibly by calling a special session — if the bill stayed bottled up in the House.
“The Governor has always said he expects to see reform in time for next year’s redistricting, regardless of the legislative vehicle,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email.
The proposed amendment won overwhelming support in the legislature last year, when control of the state House and Senate — and therefore the power to redraw the state’s political maps after the 2020 Census — were up for grabs in November elections.
But the amendment must pass the General Assembly two years in a row, and then win approval from voters in a referendum, before it can take effect.
But some Democrats had second thoughts about the legislation after the party flipped both chambers blue. Senate Democrats continued to support the proposed amendment, but some House Democrats backed away, led by the chamber’s Black Caucus. Some members of the caucus had warned since last year that the amendment doesn’t safeguard the interests of minorities.
At least a few more House Democrats say they share those concerns now, though likely not enough to doom the amendment on the House floor, where it passed 85 to 13 last year.
The amendment would create a bipartisan commission of legislators and citizens to draw the state’s political boundaries. That process is now controlled by the General Assembly and the governor.
Since the state’s legislative and congressional maps were last drawn in 2011 — by a GOP-led House and Democratically controlled Senate — the U.S. Supreme Court has twice ordered do-overs.
The map created by the proposed commission would be submitted to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote, with no role for the governor and no amendments permitted.
The commission includes spots for several lawmakers, and critics raised concerns that, under rules requiring supermajority votes to approve the maps, just two House or Senate members from the same party would have the power to thwart any redistricting plan.
They were also concerned that in the event of a stalemate, mapmaking would fall to the state Supreme Court, which is dominated by conservatives.
Supporters of the amendment said those flaws could be addressed through enabling legislation.
Republicans accused House Democrats of hypocrisy earlier this session as they let the House resolution die without a vote. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), languished before the House Privileges and Elections Committee until Monday.
Before voting against the amendment, Committee Chairman Joseph C. Lindsey (D-Norfolk) called the resolution “a piss-poor piece of legislation.”
Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a civics teacher who had submitted the House resolution, was among those who voted to advance the legislation. He asked if his own notoriously misshaped suburban district would be more or less likely to be gerrymandered under Barker’s bill.
“Much less likely,” Barker replied.