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Gibson: Virginia's redistricting commission shakes off a shaky start

Gibson: Virginia's redistricting commission shakes off a shaky start

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Virginia’s new redistricting commission launched this year to a slow and shaky start.

However, sometimes initial misfortune can turn out to be a blessing.

Everything seemed to go wrong at first. From delayed U.S. Census Bureau numbers to pandemic pauses, the bipartisan commission appeared jinxed in an atmosphere growing ever more inhospitable to bipartisan cooperation.

But now under time pressure to hand the General Assembly its state legislative district maps by Oct. 10, people closely watching the process detect a seriousness of purpose that could yield workable compromises.

Workable compromises that avoid the legacy of decades of gerrymandered districts could give Virginia voters more compact districts that better reflect their communities.

The census numbers were given state officials in late summer, a delay well past deadlines that would have allowed the commission to redraw state legislative districts in time to hold this year’s elections in 100 newly created House of Delegates districts.

This turned out to be not such a disaster as it gave the commission more time to adjust to the difficult work of drawing 100 new House of Delegates districts, plus 40 state Senate districts and — by Oct. 25 — 11 new congressional districts.

The 16-member commission of eight lawmakers and eight citizens adopted rules that could allow it to reach compromises, but with no guarantees other than an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court if the legislature twice fails to accept the commission’s handiwork without any changes.

Two Republican members of the commission, one a legislator and the other a citizen member, resigned, but they were replaced before major votes took place.

The whole enterprise was once seen as unlikely. A bipartisan commission might never have emerged from the legislature but popped out on the final day of the 2019 session seen as about to switch from GOP control to Democratic majorities.

Republicans, sensing their majorities were slipping away, proposed a last-minute compromise in the form of a constitutional amendment that invited Democrats to continue to vote their minority-party convictions during 2019 and 2020 when they attained power. Enough did to eliminate the majority party’s right to gerrymander.

Virginia’s voters embraced the constitutional amendment and overwhelmingly approved it last November.

The commission’s slow start continued this summer as partisans initially could not agree on a single outside counsel or consultant but instead appointed separate and partisan specialists to draw two sets of proposed House and Senate districts.

So far, both sets of new lines drawn for Northern Virginia appear far fairer than past gerrymanders. Observers detect a new chance to allow compromise.

Initially, the partisan line drawers decided to provide region by region proposals through the rest of the state. Instead, running out of time for the regional approach, the commission switched to consider twin sets of proposed House and Senate maps for the entire state.

After the new statewide proposed maps are unveiled Sept. 20, the commission plans nine more public hearings before the Oct. 10 deadline for turning revised compromise maps over to the General Assembly for its up-or-down vote on approval.

One difficulty not yet resolved is how much input to give lawmakers on the commission to propose changes to maps to align their residence with a friendly district or away from a district shared with another lawmaker. If done behind closed doors, this would be old-fashioned gerrymandering.

When commission member Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax County, suggested it in the open at an early September meeting, citizen members from his party criticized his departure from the concepts of not considering lawmakers’ addresses and building new districts instead of starting from current districts.

Chris Saxman, a former GOP delegate from Staunton, said commissioners “should not consider incumbents during their deliberations — at all. If they do, it will undermine the entire effort to rebuild trust in our institutions.”

Saxman, who directs the pro-business group Virginia Free, expressed optimism the group can succeed. “I think things will work out eventually with an eventual compromise, which was the goal all along.”

The commission has a very busy schedule from Monday’s production of statewide proposed legislative maps to the final handover of maps for the General Assembly in 14 days and the production of 11 new Congressional districts 15 days later.

Michael Rodemeyer, who chaired a Charlottesville chapter of the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021, said the eight citizen commission members naturally needed some time to get up to speed. Whatever compromise the commission finally adopts, “we’re still going to get fairer districts with neither party able to rig the system to its own advantage.”

“The more open question is how well the commission will be able to resist the pressure from both parties to protect incumbents, given that its proposal has to pass the General Assembly,” he said. “The decision to start maps from scratch, rather than tinker with existing districts, is a hopeful sign.”

Liz White, executive director of OneVirginia2021, said an uneasy start has been replaced by a better spirit of compromise the past few weeks.

And, if the commission’s handiwork is not accepted by the General Assembly, special masters hired by the Supreme Court of Virginia can be counted on to draw fairer and more compact districts than the legislature’s past ugly and self-serving gerrymanders.

Lawmakers may just decide to take their bipartisan commission’s handiwork as safer for all incumbents.

After all, eight lawmakers are on the 16-member commission, but whatever compromise the commission chooses could be a better deal for all incumbents than the even less certain compromise a Supreme Court driven process might devise.

The court would operate perhaps more strictly by the adopted rule to not consider incumbents and the rule to start drawing districts from scratch.

David Toscano, former House of Delegates minority leader until 2018, said it remains unclear whether the commission can overcome challenges. “Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go before concluding that a plan cannot be drawn and the process ends up in the Virginia Supreme Court.”

And who would be more likely to consider the interests of incumbents, a bipartisan commission with eight lawmakers or a court with none?

Bob Gibson is a member of the Virginia Commission on Civic Education.

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