Political redistricting ahead of Virginia’s 2021 elections will kick off soon under a transformed process, which voters approved this week through a constitutional amendment meant to curb gerrymandering.
Virginians overwhelmingly backed the amendment, which is poised to end the legislature’s sweeping control over legislative and congressional districts. It will shift map-drawing duties to a 16-member bipartisan commission of lawmakers and citizens and, if they deadlock, to the right-leaning Virginia Supreme Court.
The amendment, which appeared as Question 1 on Virginians’ ballots, had attracted the support of 66% of voters as of late Wednesday, with nearly all ballots counted.
Work to create the commission is expected to begin this month, but the actual map-drawing process could be put on hold until the summer, due to expected delays on population data from the federal government, prompted by the pandemic.
Political redistricting, which happens every 10 years after the census, has been a highly politicized process that can help secure electoral victories for one party or another based on how districts are drawn.
It’s that dynamic that led many high-ranking Virginia Democrats to oppose the amendment, which wrestled control over the process away from the General Assembly and into the hands of a bipartisan group — just as Democrats won control of the legislature from Republicans.
The commission is expected to curb what proponents consider egregious gerrymandering, the practice of moving voters from one district to another to guarantee the most victories for a particular party. Federal courts found House Republicans had racially gerrymandered the state’s maps in the 2011 redistricting process.
The commission will be made up of eight lawmakers and eight citizens. Legislative leaders in the House and Senate will select the eight lawmakers from the two major parties, yielding four from each party.
The eight citizen members will be picked by a committee of five retired circuit judges; four are selected by legislative leaders from both parties, and the foursome will elect the fifth. The group of judges will pick citizen members from two lists of 16 people who have volunteered for the job, each submitted by the leaders of the two major parties.
“If you’re thinking that’s a lot, or that it’s a complicated process, it is. All of those checks and balances are necessary to ensure things are even keel and no one side gets over on the other,” said Brian Cannon, executive director of FairMapsVA and OneVirginia2021, groups that pushed for the amendment in the legislature and in the referendum.
The constitutional amendment itself doesn’t guarantee that any members on the commission will be people of color. That was a key criticism brought by Democrats who opposed it, including the entire Black caucus in the House of Delegates and the two Black members of the Virginia congressional delegation, Reps. Bobby Scott, D-3rd, and Donald McEachin, D-4th.
Under a deal between Democratic lawmakers on either side of the issue, Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to amend the state’s budget this week to add details on how the new redistricting process will be conducted and language that says that the selection of commission members must take into account the state’s racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity.
It also says party leaders in the House and Senate cannot serve on the commission.
The budget amendment will also lay out a timeline for the redistricting process.
“I can confirm he will be putting enabling language in the budget, per the agreement,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said Wednesday.
The redistricting process is directly tied to the census, the population count every 10 years. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, census efforts stalled for three months, pushing back the anticipated delivery of results from February to the summer months.
Kathay Feng, national redistricting director for Common Cause, which opposes gerrymandering, said the timeline could change depending on action from Congress.
Feng said that delays could push back the state’s June 8 primaries and Nov. 2 elections, when all 100 House of Delegates seats will be up for grabs.
“These are circumstances that are largely out of the hands of all of us who are waiting for the data. But at the same time, there may be some things that can be done to adjust for these highly unusual circumstances,” Feng said.
Per a timeline laid out by Cannon, the process of creating the commission will kick off Nov. 15. The commission should be up and running by Feb. 1, he said. It is to hold its first meeting by that date under the constitutional amendment.
Once the commission receives the census data, it will have two months to finalize its maps.