Virginia voters are likely wise to the Democrats’ reversal, and the good news is that they will have the last word. After years of grass-roots activism, a referendum to establish a genuinely bipartisan redistricting procedure, through a state constitutional amendment, is on the commonwealth’s November ballot. Voters should approve it.
The measure would create a 16-member redistricting commission, half of them lawmakers (four from each party) and half other citizens, who would draft a map of congressional and state legislative districts and submit it to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. In the event of deadlock in the commission, the map-drawing would be handed over to experts named by the state Supreme Court.
The process isn’t perfect. Democrats who tried this year to derail it in the House of Delegates noted that the court is dominated by conservative judges named by past GOP-led legislatures. In theory, the court’s own maps could lend Republicans a partisan advantage.
But many of those same Democratic critics, including the current House speaker, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), backed the amendment last year, when they were in the minority. Their change of heart occurred after they took control of the legislature in last fall’s elections, when supporting the measure for a second straight year, as required for constitutional amendments, became a matter of stripping themselves of the power to impose new maps. In the event, after the amendment sailed through the state Senate, just nine Democrats in the House voted for it, joining all 45 Republicans in the chamber.
What should not be lost in the partisan back-and-forth is that, whatever its potential flaws, the new system represents a giant step forward. Under the old system, voting districts were drawn in backrooms occupied exclusively by majority lawmakers — hence the GOP-drawn maps, crafted after the 2010 Census, that undercut minority voting clout and were struck down, twice, by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The new redistricting commission, if voters approve it, would operate in public. In the event of a deadlock, the state Supreme Court, in its role as arbiter, could conceivably play partisan games but has every incentive not to: Federal courts have rejected overtly partisan maps.
Virginians have been broadly in favor of tamping down partisanship in redistricting for years. In a poll last December, nearly three-quarters of registered voters surveyed said they backed the new system as described in the constitutional amendment. They are likely to see the Democratic Party’s newfound antipathy to reform for what it is: naked partisanship.