This landmark new method for drawing political boundaries in Virginia was approved by voters on Nov. 3. The commission will face a compressed schedule next year to get new maps in place for the 2021 elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates.
Expected delays in the U.S. census data that guides the shaping of political boundaries could create a logjam: The federal government has promised to have the data available no later than April 1, but Virginia needs to have new maps in place by April 2 to stick to its usual schedule of primaries and elections, according to the state’s Division of Legislative Services (DLS).
That could lead the state to postpone the June primary until later in the year.
“The wild card is the census data. I think there are a lot of open questions out there about how that process will work,” said Kevin O’Holleran, spokesman for House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax).
“That’s something the commission will take up as a first order of business,” said Amigo Wade, the director of DLS, which is staffing the effort.
In the meantime, application forms for citizen members are set to be posted online by Monday. The forms and more information about the process are available on the DLS website.
Under the constitutional amendment approved by voters, the commission will include eight lawmakers — two Republicans and two Democrats chosen by leaders of the House of Delegates, and two from each party chosen by Senate leaders. Those names are expected to be announced early next week.
Those members will review the citizen applicants and submit nominees to the panel of retired circuit court judges, who were chosen earlier this month by members of the General Assembly from a list supplied by Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons of the Supreme Court of Virginia.
That panel — whose four initial members selected retired Judge Pamela S. Baskervill of the Petersburg area as their fifth member and chairwoman — met for the first time on Wednesday via videoconference. They hashed out details of the application forms and made plans to reconvene in January to pick the eight citizen members from lawmakers’ lists. The public members are to be seated by Jan. 15.
The judges must consider the “racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity of the Commonwealth” in making the selections, according to language passed by the General Assembly.
To be eligible, applicants must have been a Virginia resident and a registered voter for at least the past three years, and they must have voted in at least two of the past three elections.
Anyone who has held or run for political office; been employed by a campaign or officeholder; or who has been a registered lobbyist within the past five years will not be eligible to participate, nor will any of their close relatives.
The application form will include questions about education and work history, although there are no minimum requirements for eligibility.
All deliberations of the judges’ panel and the commission are to be open to the public. During Wednesday’s meeting, the judges adopted an emailed suggestion that the citizen application form ask broadly about education instead of including questions about college and postgraduate degrees, so it would not appear exclusionary.
The panel also approved an advertising plan to publicize the opportunity in newspapers and other media across the state.
“With step one of this process we already have more transparency than we’ve had in any redistricting cycle in Virginia history,” said Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a leading advocate of the redistricting commission during this year’s legislative sessions.
Until now, the General Assembly has drawn political maps every 10 years, after each U.S. census. That tends to let the party in power secure its own future by designing friendly districts. But federal judges threw out parts of the 2011 map as racially gerrymandered, and the new system was billed as a way to take politics out of redistricting.
Some Democrats, who won majorities in last year’s elections, opposed the constitutional amendment on the grounds that it doesn’t specifically prohibit gerrymandering and doesn’t mandate equal representation based on race.
Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said he remains skeptical of the new commission. The first meeting of the panel of judges was not well advertised, he said. And although one member of that group is Black — retired Judge David F. Pugh of Newport News — Bagby said there are no guarantees that the eventual commission will be as diverse as the state.
“The goal was transparency, and I think for a lot of individuals the goal was inclusion,” Bagby said. “For me the goal has always been ensuring that Black Virginians finally have a voice in redistricting. I have not seen evidence of any of it yet.”