OneVirginia2021 is an independent nonpartisan commission created by the Virginia Senate in 2015 in an effort to eliminate gerrymandering of state legislative districts. Executive Director Brian Cannon provided an update on Virginia’s Redistricting Commission Proposal at a May 21 presentation about the redistricting process at North Branch School in Afton organized by Katrien Vance, an NBS middle school teacher.
Cannon showed the puzzling pictures of existing congressional districts in Virginia as well as some of the infamous snake-like shapes of districts in Maryland, North Carolina and other states. Cannon explained how computer data is manipulated to produce the numbers of voters needed either for reelection or to exclude candidates by moving the lines of their home district. This deliberate manipulation of legislative district lines defines gerrymandering. It is not a partisan issue, as whichever party holds the majority in the legislature in the redistricting year, the year after the census reports its latest figures, makes their voter selections according to their own electoral requirements. The result is noncompetitive elections. The party in charge wants to ensure it stays that way.
The solution to gerrymandering in Virginia requires an amendment to the State Constitution to take the redistricting process out of the hands of the legislature. The General Assembly passed the “first read” of the proposed amendment in February 2019 and established Virginia’s first Redistricting Commission. The proposed commission would be made up of eight legislators and eight citizens with a citizen chairperson. Including citizens in the redistricting process is seen as a first step to reform. Citizens will be selected by retired judges from lists provided by both parties in both chambers of the General Assembly. Citizen members may not be an elected member of Congress or Virginia General Assembly, nor a staff member of either. The lines of newly drawn legislative maps will require the votes of six legislators and six citizens to pass. The General Assembly gets to approve the commission’s map on an up-or-down vote but may not amend it. The meetings, minutes and data would be open to the public to serve as a check on the commission’s work. This would be the first time in the state’s history that citizens would have a voice in the process.
As its name implies, there is a timeline to pass a constitutional amendment. This year the Virginia General Assembly overwhelmingly passed the amendment in what is referred to as a first pass. There are three more passes to complete. In November the entire General Assembly will be up for election. Once a new assembly is seated, the amendment must pass a second time. After the two General Assembly votes (2019 and 2020) a statewide referendum would be on the ballot in November 2020.
Cannon provided illustrations of a few states that have models of reform including Arizona, Iowa and California. Virginia’s proposal improves on these designs, but as passed the amendment does not exactly match the proposal. It omitted, for example, having an open process for citizens to apply and rules to maintain existing communities. These points can be amended, Cannon said.
For more details on the plan, visit onevirginia2021 on Facebook or go online to www.onevirginia2021.org/amendment.