The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia’s bipartisan redistricting commission has been a failure

The Virginia Capitol in Richmond in 2019. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Virginia’s bipartisan redistricting commission, in which an overwhelming majority of the commonwealth’s voters placed their hopes for reforming hidebound gerrymandering and sacrosanct protection for incumbents, has been a failure.

The same political polarization that has seized the nation, and the state, paralyzed the 16-member commission, divided evenly between partisans of each party. The panel’s inability to strike a compromise is an indictment of its members, the party leaders who appointed them, and America’s rapidly fraying comity.

The commission’s structural problems were possibly to blame for a crackup that failed to produce redrawn voting maps for the state Senate and House of Delegates as well as for Congress. That was the job voters handed commissioners when they approved the constitutional amendment establishing the redistricting commission in a referendum last year. Perhaps a nonpartisan panel, rather than a bipartisan one, would have been better equipped to get the job done. Arguably, the prospect of a nonaligned or independent element on the commission, which could break a partisan tie, might have incentivized the party-appointed members to strike a deal.

But as it was enacted by the General Assembly and presented to voters, the commission lacked those attributes. It was nonetheless duty-bound as constituted to draft the voting district maps mandated by the Constitution to reflect population shifts in the 2020 Census. Instead, it whiffed.

That failure means that the task of making electoral maps for both houses of the state legislature and, barring an unlikely 11th-hour breakthrough, for Congress, will now fall to Virginia’s Supreme Court.

That outcome may not pain Republican leaders because the court’s majority was installed by the state legislature when it was controlled by the GOP. The knowledge of that fallback probably acted as a disincentive for Republicans to compromise. In a state that has tilted Democrat for years, and failed to elect a single Republican to statewide office since 2009, all eight GOP commissioners dug in their heels against maps that would have reflected that shift. The Republican commissioners even blocked one congressional map that would have given Democrats, who now hold seven of the state’s 11 seats in the House of Representatives, assurance of just five.

That vote cast a harsh light on the GOP’s intransigence, and on their transparent bet that the Supreme Court judges will be as nakedly partisan as they are. The deadlock, said the commission’s co-chair, Democrat Greta Harris, was “the definition of insanity.” Or perhaps more accurately, the definition of raw self-interest at the expense of the public’s interest.

The two parties will now propose a list of potential mapmakers from which the state Supreme Court will choose two “special masters,” one from each party. Ultimately, the question for the judges will be whether they are as partisan as the GOP lawmakers who elevated them to the bench. If they are, the court will thereafter be seen not as an independent branch of government, but as an arm of the Republican Party — and its status in the public’s eye will be diminished accordingly.

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