A divided House of Delegates Committee on Privileges and Elections on Monday evening advanced a state constitutional amendment to create a redistricting commission, without the support of local Del. David A. Reid (D-32).
The amendment passed with broad bipartisan support last year, but that was only the first of three votes needed to amend the state constitution. Legislators must then vote approve the same language again, with an intervening election in the House of Delegates, before sending it to a voter referendum for a final decision.
The amendment appeared stalled this year after House Democrats, having seized control of the legislature, split on the measure. While the Senate continued its strong bipartisan support for the proposal, the House elections committee dropped its version of the bill and delayed voting on the Senate version. The committee took an 11th-hour vote to send the amendment to a floor vote Monday evening.
The amendment creates a commission of eight legislators, four from each chamber, with equal representation for the two political parties controlling the most seats in their respective chambers. The eight citizen appointees are selected by a panel of five retired Circuit Court judges, from lists submitted by party leadership in the two chambers.
If the commission cannot come to a consensus on new district maps, or if the commission submits two different plans to the General Assembly and is voted down both times, voting districts would be established by the Supreme Court of Virginia.
The amendment is an attempt to leave behind Virginia’s history of voting districts drawn to give people’s votes more or less power based on political leanings or race—demonstrated as recently as 2017, when federal courts found Virginia Republicans had drawn racially gerrymandered voting districts to keep themselves in power. Virginia’s voting districts will be redrawn again after the 2020 U.S. Census.
Political organizers lined up on both sides of the debate during public comment, although only a few opposed the amendment. Many people in the room for the committee meeting held signs that read “Amend.”
“We believe that this is one the people need to decide,” said former Loudoun NAACP president Phillip Thompson, a current member of the National Black Bipartisan Redistricting Organization. “If the people think their bill is better, and they’ve got a better idea, they’re able to campaign up to November to prove their idea is better and let the people decide. So we believe the people should decide. Transparency is very important when you deal with racial issues.”
“We at the League of Women Voters believe that the constitutional amendment provides the best path for fair and long-lasting redistricting reform in Virginia,” said League of Women Voters of Virginia Second Vice President Mary Crutchfield. “If you pass a law, in a few years, the law could be changed or completely repealed.”
And Jessica Ackerman, Policy and Advisory Relations Manager at the Virginia Municipal League, said the amendment “has been a longstanding position” for the league.
However, two people, from Herndon-Reston Indivisible, traveled to Richmond to speak against the amendment.
“Right now, we have a commission that will have eight legislators and eight citizens,” said Joanne Collins. “Those citizens are picked by those legislators.” She also said the Supreme Court of Virginia is conservative, with most of its justices appointed by Republicans. Another speaker worried that amendment would further enshrine the two-party system in place today and keep third parties out of the process.
Some members of the committee argued the bill was fatally flawed, Reid among them. Although last year he supported the bill, this year Reid argued against it.
“The reason why is that I think, after careful and thoughtful and deliberate analysis, we really need to take a step back, and we need to look at what is the right solution to go forward,” Reid said in committee. He said the committee could test out a new process with legislation after the upcoming census, then use that to shape a constitutional amendment in the future.
Reid did not respond to multiple requests for comment before the vote.
Alexandria Del. Mark H. Levine (D-45) said the committee was presented with a “false choice—we are told that it’s either a constitutional amendment or it’s gerrymandering.” He argued for other bills, normal laws rather than constitutional amendments, that had also been introduced.
“For the first time in 400 years, we’re giving legislative power to the Virginia Supreme Court,” Levine said. And, said, Virginia is one of two states where the legislature chooses judges. “If we get fair districts out of this, I’ll be pleased to admit I’m wrong. If I’m right, though, it’ll be catastrophic.”
“What we have before us is the only thing that we could get a Republican legislature last year to pass, and that’s the problem I have with it,” said Falls Church Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-5). “I think we have the opportunity to do a much better job.”
And Newport News Del. Marcia S. “Sia” Price (D-95) said the bill does not have protections for minorities.
“What I don’t have the luxury of doing is saying that I’d be killing the good for the perfect, because voting rights protections for my community are not some silver lining,” Price said. “They are the basis of the ability for us to participate in the democratic process.”
And committee Chairman Del. Joseph C. Lindsey (D-90) of Norfolk called it a “piss-poor piece of legislation.”
When I’m looking at a situation where the judges of the Supreme Court, five of which were Republican appointees, only the two most recent being Democratic appointees, that gives me great pause,” Lindsey said. “That would be the equivalent of me asking the drug addict to watch my pharmacy while I go to lunch.”
But, argued Bristol Del. Israel D. O’Quinn (R), “when it comes to bipartisan redistricting, this is the only vehicle that’s moving forward this year, and it won’t move again until 2030.”
“The legislation that has been pushed as an alternative really just leaves the decision to the General Assembly, and the final decision is up to the General Assembly, so it’s really no real different than what we’ve had in the past,” said Fredericksburg Del. Mark L. Cole (D-88).
The committee voted to pass the amendment back to the House floor for a vote 13-8.