RICHMOND — Republican leaders of the House of Delegates have put together a plan for establishing an independent redistricting commission, aiming to change the process of drawing legislative boundaries even as they challenge a current redistricting effort in court.
The plan rolled out Monday by Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Spotsylvania) and endorsed by Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) would call for an amendment to the state constitution to set up a 12-member commission appointed mostly by the legislature.
The speaker of the House would appoint four members, two from each major political party, while the Senate Rules Committee and the governor would each do the same.
The commission would then prepare district maps for both houses of the state legislature and Congress and submit those to the General Assembly, which would have to consider them — unchanged — in a straight up-or-down vote.
If the legislature rejected any plans, the commission would try again. And if that plan also failed, the state Supreme Court would set the districts.
“It’s not perfect,” Cox said Monday after Cole presented the latest version of his plan to a House subcommittee. “But I think it’s better than any other plan I’ve seen.”
Currently the General Assembly draws the lines, so whichever party is in power has enormous sway over shaping future elections.
The boundaries are redrawn every 10 years, after the U.S. Census. The next redistricting is set for 2021.
Federal judges ruled last year that 11 of Virginia’s House of Delegates districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas were racially gerrymandered — designed to concentrate black voters and deprive them of representation.
Those plans were drawn up in 2011 by Republicans who controlled the legislature but were approved by many Democrats as well, including now-Gov. Ralph Northam, who at the time was a state senator.
A “special master” appointed by judges from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia created a menu of possible new boundaries, and last week the judges chose a combination of maps that seems to position Democrats for big gains in this fall’s elections, when all 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot.
Republicans hold slim majorities in the Senate — at 21 to 19 — and the House, which is split 51 to 48 with one seat open for a special election in a district previously held by a Democrat.
The maps chosen by the federal judges would put six Republicans into districts that would probably become majority Democratic, according to an analysis of recent elections by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. Several of those Republicans hold leadership positions — including Cox, the House speaker.
“I think clearly our leadership was targeted,” Cox said Monday. He said he would prefer that issues related to redistricting go to the state Supreme Court instead of to federal judges, whom he believes favor Democrats.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge filed by Cox and other House leaders against the case but refused to delay the redistricting already underway. The new maps could be finalized sometime next month and would not be affected by the effort to create a new state commission.
Northam has called for an independent redistricting commission, and numerous bills filed by lawmakers from both parties are circulating around the General Assembly. Most call for a constitutional amendment, which would require a two-year approval process before the question would be put to state voters.