In historic change, Virginia voters approve bipartisan commission to handle political redistricting

In historic change, Virginia voters approve bipartisan commission to handle political redistricting
Redistricting reform advocate Brian Cannon poses with some of his yard signs and bumper stickers in his office, Tuesday Oct. 6, 2020, in Richmond, Va. An effort to end centuries of partisan gerrymandering in Virginia is up for consideration by the state's voters. A referendum on the November ballot asks whether to amend the state Constitution to create a bipartisan panel that would take on the once-every-10-year task of redrawing the legislative boundaries for General Assembly and congressional districts (AP Photo/Steve Helber) (Source: Steve Helber)

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering.

On Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

Though some votes were still uncounted, FairMapsVA, the anti-gerrymandering group pushing for the amendment with its parent organization OneVirginia2021, declared victory around 12:40 a.m., saying the result came after six years of work.

“Tonight, we celebrate the formation of Virginia’s first citizen-led redistricting commission; and tomorrow, we get back to work to ensure the commission’s work is successful,” the group said in a statement.

The outcome ensures that the next redistricting process — which could determine how much representation Virginia communities have, which political party is likely to hold power in Richmond and which incumbents are or aren’t safe from election challenges — will have at least some direct citizen involvement for the first time ever.

Once a decade, the state uses new U.S. Census data to redraw legislative and congressional maps to ensure each district has roughly the same population. How those districts are drawn can have far-reaching impacts, affecting which party can win a majority of the seats, electoral competitiveness, how much political power minority communities have and which individual politicians get to represent a particular area. So it’s no surprise that changing who draws those maps was a contentious endeavor.

The vote on the redistricting question, coupled with strong Democratic victories in Tuesday’s statewide races, reveals a disconnect between some Democratic leaders and the party’s voters.

Many Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against the commission proposal this year after voting for it in 2019, a reversal they said came after they had more time to consider its flaws. The Democratic Party of Virginia also officially opposed the initiative despite the fact that it was supported by senior Virginia Democrats like U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Had the amendment failed, the Democratic-led General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam would have the final say on new maps.

Fair Districts VA, an advocacy group formed by Democrats opposed to the ballot question, conceded defeat early Wednesday morning, saying it had been “fighting an uphill battle.” The group demanded that more be done to pursue stronger redistricting reform going forward.

“The people who pushed Amendment 1 know of its flaws – and it is now incumbent upon them to seek real solutions to fix those flaws,” Fair Districts said in a news release.

The proposal was supported by national good-government groups as well as the ACLU of Virginia, the League of Women Voters of Virginia and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. But it fell short of what many redistricting reformers envisioned: a fully independent commission that gives incumbent politicians no power whatsoever to draw their own districts.

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