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Nonpartisan redistricting sought in Virginia

The Virginia Capitol, where a bipartisan group called for the task of redistricting to be given to an independent commission.
The Virginia Capitol, where a bipartisan group called for the task of redistricting to be given to an independent commission. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Virginia should take the task of political mapmaking away from politicians and turn it over to a nonpartisan redistricting commission, a group of legal experts and former elected officials said Thursday, as they announced plans to try to make that happen by amending the state constitution.

The effort to scrap how the state draws legislative and congressional districts comes as Republicans are fighting to preserve a House of Delegates map that a federal court has ordered redrawn to correct racial gerrymandering.

In a filing to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on Wednesday night, House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) asked that June state-run primaries and other nominating contests for House seats be postponed until September to give the U.S. Supreme Court time to hear the appeal.

At a news conference Thursday, advocates for nonpartisan redistricting pointed to the latest twist in the extended court fight as proof that the state needs to try something new.

“If there’s any way to define a broken system for how we select the people who represent us, it’s that in 2018, we’re litigating in a federal court the districts that were drawn in 2011,” said former Republican delegate Wyatt Durrette, the chair of the group pushing for a constitutional amendment. The effort was organized by OneVirginia2021, which advocates for nonpartisan redistricting.

U.S. Supreme Court to take up Virginia redistricting case on racial gerrymandering

Through spokesman Parker Slaybaugh, Cox did not take a position on the group’s proposal, which includes a detailed plan for selecting 10 people — three Republicans, three Democrats and four independents — to draw the state’s maps after every census.

“There are a lot of passionate advocates on both sides of the aisle and the amendment will have to go through the legislative process along with the many other [resolutions] that will be presented come January,” Slaybaugh said in a statement.

House Democrats issued a statement in support of an amendment to create an independent redistricting commission.

“Our members look forward to working with constituents, colleagues and advocates to pass a constitutional amendment on redistricting reform in the 2019 session,” said House Democratic Caucus Executive Director Trevor Southerland. “We have great hope that when the districts are redrawn in 2021, it will be done by an independent commission.”

For the constitution to be amended, the measure would have to pass the General Assembly twice, with an election in between. Then voters would have to pass it in a referendum. If the amendment passes in the 2019 and 2020 General Assembly sessions and then passes in a referendum, the commission would draw district boundaries in 2021, following the 2020 Census.

The 10-member group calling for the amendment includes former state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II (R), former House minority leader Ward Armstrong (D) and A.E. Dick Howard, the University of Virginia Law School professor who led the commission that wrote the current version of the state constitution in 1971.

“We thought we had addressed [gerrymandering] in the new constitution,” which specified that legislative and congressional districts be “contiguous and compact,” Howard said.

Court strikes down Virginia House districts as racial gerrymandering

But he said the General Assembly and governor, who currently have the power to draw the maps, have managed to disregard that directive over the years.

“You’ve all seen these maps,” he said. “They look like you took ink and threw it at the wall. That’s the festering problem that still in­fuses American politics.”

Also on the committee was Greg Lucyk, a former senior assistant state attorney general who twice led trial teams that defended what he said were badly gerrymandered maps — one drawn by Republicans, the other by Democrats.

“I have seen firsthand how gerrymandering has been used by both parties to deny voters a meaningful choice at the polls,” he said.

The group’s plan would not take politics entirely out of the redistricting process. Under the proposal, the four top leaders of the General Assembly — the speaker and minority leader in the House, and the majority and minority leaders in the Senate — would each pick one retired circuit court judge to serve on a selection committee. Those four judges would pick a fifth to round out the committee, which would then pick 22 candidates for the redistricting commission. Of that group, five would be Democrats, five Republicans and 12 independents.

The four General Assembly leaders would each get the chance to “strike” three candidates, one from the opposing party and two independents. The remaining 10 would then get down to mapmaking — in public meetings. The map that prevails must have support from seven of the 10, with at least one Republican and one Democrat on board.

Republicans controlled the House and Democrats the Senate when the current maps were drawn in 2011. Under a deal, Republicans drew the map for the House and Democrats drew the one for the Senate without interference from the other chamber. The House map had the support of the Legislative Black Caucus.

But a federal court later found that Republicans had packed too many black voters into a few House districts to make surrounding districts more winnable for the GOP. It ordered them to redraw 11 districts.