Some Democrats — especially members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus — have complained that the process started by Republicans doesn’t safeguard the interests of minorities.
Republicans say Democrats are getting cold feet now that they’re the ones who fully control the legislature and, under the existing system, would be in charge of drawing the maps.
“The public is sick and tired of candidates saying one thing when they get elected and when they have the opportunity to show political courage, they fail to do so,” Del. Jason S. Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) said Thursday, urging Democrats to stick with the planned amendment.
But Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News), who is sponsoring the proposal to scrap the amendment, said the original plan is fatally flawed because it includes no language about minority representation.
“We are the most diverse General Assembly that we’ve ever been; we are the most diverse state that we’ve ever been,” Price said. “Why would we not want to make sure that that is a part of the constitution?”
House Democrats can take their time deciding which route to choose. They voted last month to extend the deadline for acting on the amendment until near the final day of the session, which ends March 7. So they can keep both types of legislation alive for several more weeks.
All of the redistricting plans advancing in both the House and Senate include the same basic framework: the creation of a 16-member panel to draw the state’s political boundaries, instead of leaving the job to the General Assembly.
The panel would include eight lawmakers — two from each party in each chamber — and eight citizens chosen by the legislature from a list assembled by a panel of judges.
The map created by the commission would be submitted to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote.
Virginia must redraw its political map next year, based on the results of the 2020 Census. The U.S. Supreme Court has twice ordered do-overs of the map that a Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate created in 2011, after federal judges said the maps were racially gerrymandered.
Democrats won majorities in both the House and Senate in last year’s elections, partly on the promise they would create a more fair system of redistricting.
Any amendment to the state constitution must be passed in two consecutive years in identical form before being put to voters in November. The proposal created last year under Republican control drew some bipartisan support, but many black lawmakers warned at the time that they found it inadequate.
Democrats in the Senate endorsed the amendment in committee this week. They addressed the representation issue by passing enabling legislation that set out guidelines for the commission, including language from the federal Voting Rights Act and other mandates for safeguarding minority representation.
On Thursday, a subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee unanimously advanced the same enabling legislation, which would only go into effect if the constitutional amendment is eventually passed.
At the same time, the subcommittee also advanced Price’s bill on a 5-3 party-line vote. Price would bypass the amendment but set up the same type of commission, with instructions about minority representation written directly into its charter.
The problem with enacting the Republican amendment, Price said, is that future legislatures could completely rewrite the rules that govern it. It would be better to come back next year with a fully realized amendment, she said, and set up a commission under the statute in the meantime.
The matter goes to the full committee on Friday and must get through the House floor by Tuesday, which is the deadline for all legislation approved by one chamber to “cross over” to the other.
As Democrats wrestle with their approach, they have built at least one significant change into the redistricting process. All the proposals under consideration would dramatically recast the way Virginia counts prison populations.
Under current law, prisoners are counted in the districts where they are incarcerated. Even if they are convicted felons and cannot vote, the population can change an area’s apparent demographics. Prison populations are disproportionately African American but are often housed in white, rural counties.
Language in both House and Senate redistricting plans would assign each prisoner to his or her last known home address for purposes of drawing political boundaries. Prisoners from out of state would still count in the location where they are being held.