RICHMOND — The government integrity panel created by Gov. Terry McAuliffe adopted recommendations on Monday for an overhaul of Virginia’s redistricting process, embracing an approach the Republican-dominated House of Delegates has consistently rejected.
The panel wants to amend the Virginia Constitution to create an independent commission to redraw lawmakers’ districts, and pass a law prohibiting that commission from considering election results when setting district boundaries.
Both suggestions would have to be approved by the legislature — an especially unlikely outcome in the House, where similar bills have died in committee. One proposal also would have to be approved by voters.
The panel also recommended that McAuliffe (D) and the General Assembly work together to redraw congressional districts, in response to a recent ruling declaring that the commonwealth’s congressional map is unconstitutional.
Former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling (R), who co-chairs the panel with former congressman Rick Boucher (D), said the biggest obstacle to approving the changes will be garnering support among lawmakers who face little threat of a primary opponent under the current configuration.
“For the members of the legislature, this is a question of sheer political power,” Bolling said. “The challenge is going to be trying to get the legislators to be willing to put the people’s interest ahead of political interest or their own political interest.”
Through a spokesman, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) denounced the idea of a commission and said he would resist changes to the process.
“Redistricting was established by the framers as a part of the political process,” said his spokesman, Matt Moran. “The speaker respects this process and has serious reservations about changes. . . . Independent commissions are only as independent as those who serve on them.”
Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who has pushed for a redistricting commission for years, said such a change would make government more responsive and increase voter participation in elections. “Frankly, this redistricting reform effort would make government work again,” he said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states — including New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio — use commissions to redraw legislative boundaries. A legal challenge to a voter-created redistricting commission in Arizona is pending before the Supreme Court.
McAuliffe established the government integrity panel in September, shortly after former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in a corruption case. He declined to comment on specific recommendations, but said through a spokesman that “getting partisan politics out of the redistricting process is an essential element of making Virginia government more transparent and accountable.”
The panel last month said lawmakers should be banned from accepting gifts worth more than $100, a limit that echoes rules McAuliffe adopted for the executive branch early in his term.
On redistricting, the panel recommended the creation of a five-member independent commission. The leaders of each party in the House and Senate would each appoint one member. Those four members would then choose the fifth.
For this provision to be added to the constitution of the commonwealth, a majority of lawmakers would have to vote in two consecutive years, separated by an election, to put it on the ballot. Then voters would have their say.
The panel also wants the legislature to adopt a law minimizing the impact of politics on the redistricting process. Districts would have to respect municipal and voting precinct boundaries, be as compact and contiguous as possible and address “racial and ethnic fairness.” The commission could not use political data or election results to favor either party in redistricting.
The panel said McAuliffe and the General Assembly should come to an agreement on redrawing congressional districts. If they can’t within 10 days of the upcoming legislative session, the panel wants McAuliffe to appoint another commission to tackle that challenge.
Greg Lucyk, a board member of One Virginia 2021, a group calling for non-political redistricting, said gerrymandered districts force lawmakers to appeal to the extremes of their base.
“If we had objective neutral criteria and an independent commission that wasn’t acting on the basis of partisan interests, we could draw districts that would be fair, competitive and would allow the discourse [that we need] to occur,” he said. “That’s not happening here in Virginia.”