Republican leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates rolled out a proposal for an independent redistricting commission on Monday, signaling a shift in the chamber where redistricting reform has failed for years.
A constitutional amendment to create a 12-person, bipartisan commission that would redraw Virginia’s political map in 2021 emerged from a House subcommittee Monday evening with the support of House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.
The proposal — sponsored by Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania — cleared the subcommittee on a 5-3 party-line vote as Republicans picked which proposed constitutional changes they want to keep alive for the remainder of the session.
Legislators redraw the boundaries of congressional and legislative seats every 10 years to reflect population shifts in the census. For years, redistricting reform advocates have said the power to redraw the state’s electoral map should be taken from politicians and put in the hands of a separate commission intended to operate independently of the General Assembly. Redistricting reform proposals have passed the Senate with bipartisan support, but have gone nowhere in the House.
Cox said Monday that his thinking on redistricting reform has changed because of “pretty aggressive” action federal courts have taken to redraw two Virginia electoral maps over the past decade in response to successful legal challenges from Democratic-aligned groups.
“That probably has changed my equation more than anything,” said Cox, who has criticized the House map a federal court is currently finalizing to resolve a long-running racial gerrymandering case.
If that map survives a Republican legal appeal, it could increase Democrats’ chances of taking control of the House in November. That raises the possibility that Republicans could find themselves watching a Democratic majority redraw the lines instead of a commission they may be able to exert some control over.
Under the new GOP proposal in the House, appointment power over the commission would be divided evenly between the speaker’s office, the Senate Rules Committee and the governor’s office. Each would pick two Republicans and two Democrats.
The commission would submit its map proposal to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. If the map failed to win approval after two tries, the Supreme Court of Virginia would have to resolve the impasse.
“I’ve always thought the legislature should be the key in redistricting,” Cox said.
House Democrats were still reviewing the proposal Monday night.
Cox said he doesn’t feel the proposal released Monday is perfect, and some redistricting reform advocates quickly identified ways they said it could be improved.
Brian Cannon, executive director of the anti-gerrymandering group OneVirginia2021, called the plan a “step in the right direction,” but said it needs stronger provisions “for full transparency and clear rules prohibiting political gerrymandering.”
“Seats in the General Assembly and in Congress don’t belong to the political parties — they belong to the people,” Cannon said.
Some advocates zeroed in on a provision in Cole’s plan that said the commission must make every effort to “preserve the political parity between the two political parties,” which some saw as language designed to maintain the status quo.
Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, said the House GOP proposal “simply replaces one bad system with another.”
“Voters should choose their elected officials, not the other way around. But under this amendment, voters would lose the power of their vote because districts would be required to be drawn to create a certain number of blue districts and a certain number of red ones,” Scholl said.
Though the proposal has yet to be put to a final vote, House Republicans’ apparent change of heart comes just in time to put the commission in place for the 2021 redistricting. The General Assembly would have to pass a proposed constitutional amendment twice, then voters would need to approve it in a 2020 referendum. The General Assembly must act this year in order to meet that timeline.
With Democrats hoping to take control of the House and Senate in the 2019 elections, redistricting reform advocates have said Republicans and Democrats would benefit from a more independent redistricting process since neither party knows who will control the legislature come 2021.
A resolution to create an independent redistricting commission is awaiting a vote in the Senate, but that proposal differs substantially from the one put forward by House Republicans. The Senate proposal calls for a commission with 16 members, half of whom would be members of the General Assembly.