Both parties face a powerful motivation: fear. For Republicans, who have long regarded reform as a threat, shifting political winds and rulings by federal courts have loosened their control of the state legislature. Facing the possibility of losses in this fall’s legislative elections, and the certainty of new electoral maps following the 2020 Census, many in the GOP see a bipartisan redistricting commission as their best protection against the growing likelihood of Democratic dominance in Richmond.
For their part, Democrats have talked a good game on redistricting reform for years. Now, incumbents seem to realize they had better deliver or face the wrath of their own party’s voters in June primaries. The result is the passage of reform bills that would amend Virginia’s constitution, if voters approve, to establish a bipartisan redistricting commission. The measures cleared both houses easily, but they contain key differences.
The most important is the commission’s composition. The House version, drafted by Republicans, would hand the majority party a nakedly partisan advantage: Though opposition party members would make up half the commission, the majority party in each house would select them — a recipe for mischief.
Under the Senate plan, the commission would be evenly split between sitting lawmakers of both parties and non-lawmakers who would be vetted by a panel of state judges using a jury-like selection process, under which each party could strike applicants deemed hostile. The Senate version would make final approval of legislative maps contingent on a supermajority of both the commission’s lawmakers and non-lawmakers. That would make partisan gerrymandering extremely difficult.
Critically, the Senate measure would also require that the public have open access both to the commission’s meetings and to the data it uses; the House plan has no such rule. While the Senate plan would disregard county and city boundaries, the House version would use them to the extent possible, maintaining the contours of existing communities.
A nonpartisan group, OneVirginia2021, has provided useful guidance, nudging both parties toward the goal line of genuine reform, which has eluded lawmakers for more than a decade. Virginians are well aware that the state’s current, gerrymandered map is a form of cheating. Federal judges have agreed to and approved a new map, drafted by a professor in California, to replace the racially rigged 2011 version, for this fall’s House of Delegates races.
The status quo is unfair and unworkable. Virginians deserve better. They should be watching closely, and taking notes, as lawmakers hammer out a better deal for voters.