RICHMOND — Virginia voters will consider a constitutional amendment in November that would revamp the state’s political redistricting process, and efforts to sway public opinion on the matter are heating up.
The group OneVirginia2021, which has led a years-long bipartisan effort to reform how the state redraws legislative and congressional districts, last week launched a ballot campaign dedicated to promoting the amendment, including a fund to raise money for the effort.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Virginia last month approved a resolution urging party supporters to reject the measure at the ballot. The resolution urges local Democratic committees to check “no” on any sample ballots they issue leading up to Election Day.
The amendment has created sharp division among Democrats in Virginia, who splintered on the issue after the party took control of both chambers of the General Assembly in January.
Those divisions may come to a head in the lead-up to the election, when Democrats will be seeking to defeat President Donald Trump and prevail in congressional contests, while mulling the future of the party after the 2021 redistricting process.
States redraw their political boundaries after the Census every 10 years in order to reflect population shifts. Virginia will redraw its political maps starting later this year, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s population count that is nearing completion.
If voters approve the measure in November, the constitutional amendment would shift power over the drawing of districts from the General Assembly to a 16-member bipartisan commission of legislators and citizens.
In the event of an impasse over new maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia would have the final say. The commission would feature four lawmakers of each party from each chamber.
The measure is the result of a 2019 compromise between Democrats and Republicans that attracted broad support from both parties, with the exception of some members of the legislative Black caucus in the House.
In order to become part of the state constitution, a proposed amendment must pass the legislature in successive years, with an election for the House of Delegates in between. The measure cleared the legislature for the second time earlier this year, narrowly succeeding as Democratic support in the House chipped away.
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Many Democrats opposed to the proposed amendment argue that there are no guarantees people of color will serve on the committee drawing the maps, and that the inclusion of lawmakers on the panel goes against the goal of a nonpartisan process.
They also argue that the Supreme Court of Virginia — which is made up of mostly GOP-appointed judges — should not be the ultimate arbitrator over the maps.
“There are concerns that under the commission structure created by the constitutional amendment, Republican commission members could veto maps, the Virginia Supreme Court could then ‘establish’ legislative maps favoring Republican candidates ...,” reads the Democrats’ resolution, “resulting in the loss of the Democratic majority in the House of Delegates as early as 2021 and the Senate by 2023 — and potentially resulting in Democrats being unable to retake the majority in either body despite representing a substantial and growing majority of Virginia’s population.”
The Democratic Party’s resolution proposes going back to the drawing board to draft a new amendment, a two-year process that would not be completed until after the 2021 redistricting process.
Supporters of the amendment in the legislature include nearly all Democrats in the Senate. Sens. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who have worked closely with OneVirginia2021, said in a statement last month that they were “profoundly disappointed” at the party’s resolution.
“Democrats have been at the forefront of this fight for many years; this flies in the face of our longtime commitment to fairer electoral maps,” they said.
The Republican Party of Virginia also chided the Democratic Party’s vote. Republicans broadly support the amendment, which they see as their best shot at having a seat at the redistricting table now that they are in the minority. Republican lawmakers compromised on the amendment in the 2019 session as elections loomed.
Bobby Vassar, co-chair of FairMapsVA, the ballot campaign in favor of the amendment, acknowledged that the current version is a compromise between their nonpartisan ideal and what lawmakers could compromise on in 2019 — the last year for action to impact the 2021 redistricting process.
“We drew an amendment that had some differences from what was ultimately adopted, and we saw what was adopted was good, and we decided to accept and work with that, rather than seek further perfection,” said Vassar, a Democrat who formerly worked as a legal counsel for Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd.
“The notion that, ‘Hey, if you let us, a new legislature do it, you’re going to get a much better process’ ... I don’t know that that’s true,” he said in a call with reporters. “It’s not worth the chance.”
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That division was on display earlier this month when some House Democrats on the chamber’s elections panel sought to change language Senate Democrats drafted to explain the proposed amendment. The language, slated to appear on voters’ ballots in November, is close to 500 words long.
Proposed changes by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who opposes the amendment, failed to gather enough support from the committee in a 10-12 vote that saw a few Democrats join Republicans in opposition to Simon’s wording.
Had they been approved, the changes would have been suggestions to the Senate, which holds the final say on the explanatory language because the measure on the constitutional amendment originated in that chamber. The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee approved its explanatory language unanimously on July 8.
Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, who has been a leading opponent of the amendment, said members in her caucus think the explanation drafted by the Senate does not accurately portray the merits of the amendment.
“The language that the Senate chose is indicative of their support of the amendment, as opposed to what the language would actually do,” Price said.
“I think it touts what it does for communities of interest and communities of color more than it actually does. ... We were just trying to see, how can we talk about what it actually does in more clear terms?”
Another lingering issue related to redistricting that illustrates ongoing division is pending legislation to enact it. Among other things, the legislation would create a process to choose members of the bipartisan commission.
Lawmakers could not reach a deal on the matter during the regular 2020 session, and the odds of a deal on such legislation that the General Assembly would approve before November are slim.
“It doesn’t look like there will be one,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico.
He added that legislation introduced by Price and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, puts parameters on how the maps can be drawn, banning racial and ethnic gerrymandering and protecting communities of interest, among other guardrails. Supporters of the amendment believe the state Supreme Court would be subject to those parameters, too.
“With the amendment, we get citizen engagement, racial and ethnic minority protections and increased transparency. That alone makes voting for the amendment better than the status quo,” VanValkenburg said in an interview.
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Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, said he believes the amendment on its own is enough to sway voters. He said FairMapsVA, which was registered as a nonprofit advocacy group, will be rolling out literature on the issue and radio and digital advertisements, as well as TV spots if funding allows.
“We do plan to push out messaging so people understand what they’re voting on. This issue has always been a little bit wonky and a little bit complicated, but the premise is that people want fair maps and people want a bipartisan commission to draw their maps, instead of politicians doing it in a smoky backroom. It’s a pretty straightforward premise.”
It’s not clear whether opposition to the amendment also will take the form of a formal campaign. Grant Fox, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the organization has “no concrete plans to launch a campaign.”
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