by Dick Hall-Sizemore
(Author’s note: The following is the first of several articles on the redistricting process that is underway in the Commonwealth. There is a lot going on that merits discussion, but it is my sense that relatively short articles, as opposed to long ones with lots of detail, are more appropriate for the blog. The reporting and comments are based on numerous reports, with links at the end of the articles, as well as on hours of listening to, and watching, the recorded meetings of the full commission and one of its subcommittees.)
The Virginia Redistricting Commission has been preparing since January to draw the Commonwealth’s new Congressional districts, as well as the districts for the state Senate and House of Delegates. I wish that I could say “I told you so,” but it is worse than I feared.
A quick background summary would probably be helpful in refreshing everyone’s minds For many years, Republicans in the General Assembly had resisted calls to hand redistricting over to a nonpartisan commission. Then, in the 2017 elections, they lost 15 seats in the House of Delegates, shrinking their previous 32-seat margin to two seats (and one of those they got literally through the luck of the draw). Sensing the likelihood of additional losses in 2019 and thereby putting Democrats in control of redistricting in 2021 and being able to do to them what they had done to Democrats in 2001 and 2011, Republicans proposed a constitutional amendment in the 2019 Session that turned redistricting over to a commission. The amendment passed the 2019 General Assembly with a lot of Democratic support (the vote in the House on the final bill was 83-15).
A proposed constitutional amendment must be approved by two sessions of the General Assembly with an intervening election and then approved by the voters in a statewide referendum. In the 2019 elections, the Democrats seized control of both houses of the General Assembly. When the proposed constitutional amendment came up in the 2020 Session for its second vote, many House Democrats opposed it, eliciting accusations of hypocrisy from some quarters. Nevertheless, enough Democrats joined Republicans to approve it. The amendment was approved by a large margin in the November 2020 referendum.
Following is a summary of the amendment’s provisions regarding the makeup of the Redistricting Commission and the general process for approval of redistricting plans:
- 4 Senators (two from each party)
- 4 Delegates (two from each party)
- 2 from a list provided by the Speaker of the House
- 2 from a list provided by the House minority leader
- 2 from a list provided by the President pro tempore of the Senate (Democrat)
- 2 from a list provided by the Senate minority leader
B. Approved plans.
No plan can be submitted to the General Assembly unless it meets the following requirements:
- Congressional districts: approved by at least six of the eight legislative members and six of the eight citizen members.
- Senate districts: approved by at least six of the eight legislative members, including three of the four members from the Senate, and six of the eight citizen members.
- House districts: approved by at least six of the eight legislative members, including three of the four members from the House, and at least six of the eight citizen members.
C. Role of the General Assembly
Plans are to be submitted to the General Assembly for an up or down vote; no amendments allowed. Governor does not have a veto.
D. Role of the Virginia Supreme Court
If the commission cannot agree on a plan or the General Assembly fails to adopt a plan submitted to the legislature, the Supreme Court establishes the districts.
The proponents of the constitutional amendment sold it as a way to take the politics out of the process and draw the electoral maps in a nonpartisan fashion. During discussions among commission members, several of the citizen members also spoke in terms of nonpartisanship. Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, bluntly disabused anyone of that notion in his remarks at a May 25 subcommittee meeting:
“If you look at the process that the General Assembly and the constitution set up, it’s a little different than what we have been talking about. It’s very much a bipartisan process. It’s not a nonpartisan process. I almost wish that it was that. It’s not. It’s a bipartisan process. … Everyone here was appointed by one of the caucuses and that’s the way it works out. For instance, if George [Sen. Barker] and Mamie [Sen. Lock] don’t vote for the Senate plan, if it doesn’t get at least one of their votes, it can’t move forward. … One of maybe both Senators of one party or the other party not voting for the House plan or Senate plan, that dead stops it.”
I do not know who in the Republican General Assembly caucus came up with this constitutional amendment, but I have to hand it to him or her: it was brilliant. It was a cleverly-designed trap for Democrats, who would be hard pressed to oppose a non-legislative redistricting commission after so many years promoting that idea. As a result, instead of being shut out of the redistricting process and being subject to retribution from Democrats, the Republicans not only have leverage, they have veto power over the plans. However, both parties have to be careful; they would have no control if the Supreme Court had to step in, and a court-established plan might be worse than any plan they came up with.
Next installment: How many chairs and attorneys does one need?
In case you are wondering, here are the members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission:
- Les Adams (R-Pittsylvania)
- Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond)
- Margaret Ransone (Westmoreland)
- Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church)
- George L. Barker (D-Fairfax)
- Mamie Locke (D-Hampton)
- Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover)
- Steve Newman (R-Bedford)
Nominated by Democrats
- James Abrenio, Fairfax
- Greta Harris, Richmond
- Brandon Hutchins, Virginia Beach
- Sean Kumar, Alexandria
Nominated by Republicans
- Mackenzie Babichenko, Mechanicsville
- Jose Feliciano, Fredericksburg
- Marvin Gilliam, Bristol
- Richard Harrell, South Boston