Gerrymander artwork

The term “gerrymander” originated with a state senate district created in 1812 in Massachusetts, as depicted here with creative license by painter Gilbert Stuart. The concept of creating political districts to pre-determine the outcome of elections got its name from Elbridge Gerry, the governor who signed legislation creating the district.

Virginia voters on Nov. 3 will decide whether to approve a proposed constitutional amendment to create a commission that would redraw congressional and state legislative districts – a process usually conducted by the General Assembly the year after each decennial census.

Democrats advocated for such a commission during the two most recent decades when they did not hold the majority in the General Assembly. But with the commission potentially on the cusp of becoming reality – and Democrats in control of both legislative houses, following last November’s massive victory sweep – some lawmakers within the party are expressing reservations about possible redistricting changes.

The proposed amendment calls for creation of a 16-member Virginia Redistricting Commission, featuring eight legislators and eight citizen members. Four commissioners would be from the state Senate and four from the House of Delegates. Those memberships would be split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

A Redistricting Commission Selection Committee, staffed by five retired Circuit Court judges, would select the citizen members from lists provided by leaders in the state Senate and House of Delegates. If the redistricting panel could not come up with a plan, the process would be handed over to the Virginia Supreme Court, which likely would rely on outside experts to draw district lines.

     Del. Marcus Simon (D-McLean) said while he does not oppose having a commission draw legislative districts and taking that power away from the General Assembly, he opposes the makeup of the proposed commission and the amendment’s lack of criteria on how commissioners should redraw the legislative districts. The proposed commission still would be “inherently partisan,” he said.

     “We’d have  eight legislators to go along with eight citizens who are picked from a list provided by legislators,” Simon said. “So legislators are still so deeply entrenched in this process, so likely to dominate the outcome, that I don’t want to bake in something that’s that flawed and that watered down into the constitution.”

     Simon said he instead favors creation of “a truly independent, truly nonpartisan, all-citizen commission that really reflects a broad spectrum of Virginians.”

     Del. Rip Sullivan (D-McLean-Arlington) voted against the amendment proposal during the General Assembly session, calling it perhaps the hardest vote he’d taken.

     “I became convinced that we could do better,” he said. “There were difficulties in the amendment that led me to believe it would be unwise to enshrine it in the constitution at this point in time.”

     Sullivan hopes state lawmakers in the 2021 session will pass legislation making it possible to draw district lines in a nonpartisan, non-gerrymandered way.

     Whether the constitutional amendment passes or not, “either way, I think the voters of the commonwealth can be reassured the  next lines will be drawn in a nonpartisan way,” Sullivan said.

     But other local lawmakers support passage of the proposed amendment.

     “It’s an historic opportunity to have an objective, bipartisan process for drawing legislative maps,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax-Vienna). “I have supported this concept since I entered the legislature 20 years ago and will vote in November to make it happen.”

     State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax-Arlington) concurred.

     “I have long advocated for a constitutional amendment to reduce political pressure in the redistricting process,” she said. “No proposal will ever be perfect, but the one before the voters is a great improvement over the current system. Flaws can be remedied by enabling legislation.”

     That also was the view of state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington-Fairfax-Loudoun).

     “I support the amendment because it enshrines state and federal laws that address voter protections into the Virginia constitution,” Favola told the Sun Gazette. “Otherwise, the drawing of districts will be left to those with a vested interest – lawmakers.”

     Favola said she appreciated concerns of those who oppose the measure, but said they could be rectified legislatively.

     “I am certainly committed to working with the opponents to pass enabling language that addresses specific concerns about how the commission operates, but for now, let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” she said.

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