When the votes were counted in Virginia on Election Day 2020, it was the most popular item on the ballot. We aren’t talking about a candidate. We’re talking about the amendment to the Virginia Constitution that created a bipartisan commission to redraw Virginia’s General Assembly (House of Delegates and state Senate) and congressional district lines.
The amendment carried by a landslide, and for the first time this critical task won’t be left exclusively to the party in power. It’s a great step forward for democracy. But, that’s not to say the process will be easy.
The commission has already been formed. As reassuring as that sounds, it could be a tough road. Just how well the process is going to work is an open question; we’ve never done this before, and who might oppose the plan in court is another unanswered question. As for the timing, it’s tight to say the least.
What the commission does is finally put an end to gerrymandering in Virginia. That’s an ages-old reference to drawing districts to protect incumbents and make sure the party in power keeps its majority.
The idea is that the new commission will draw the districts the way the Virginia Constitution says they should be drawn. That guidance is simple: “Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.” It also says that all national laws regarding voting rights shall be respected and “where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”
These are noble goals and ones that can be accomplished, but almost any new map is sure to shake up the General Assembly. A few “safe” seats will disappear, lots of competitive seats will be created, and some incumbents may find themselves no longer living in their districts.
Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen of the General Assembly and of the House of Representatives, this commission, simply put, has the potential to rock your world. That is exactly why the voters so overwhelmingly supported it.
So, how does it all work? Who is on the commission, and how does it do its job? First, there are 16 members of the commission: four Democratic legislators (two from each house); four citizens nominated by Democratic legislators; four Republican legislators (again, two from each house), and four citizens nominated by Republican legislators. Applications for the eight citizen members were open to all registered voters. It brought a healthy response. This list was pared down by a General Assembly committee and finally to the final eight by a panel of five retired Virginia judges.
That was the easy part. The hard part comes next. While it offers the potential of being a far better process than just divvying up the state’s voters to suit one party or the other it’s still going to be challenging. It means that 16 people, evenly divided between the two parties, eight of whom are elected officials, have to come up with a mutually acceptable map. And they have to do so in time for the 2021 election.
It’s going to be close. Party primaries are in June, although they could be delayed until later in the summer. In order to draw the maps, the commission needs new census data. Unfortunately, data from the 2020 census won’t be ready until April at the earliest. So while maybe some preliminary work could be done, any final product might not be out until May or later. In the meantime, candidates and incumbents aren’t sure what their districts will be.
Another concern is that the commission might not be able to reach agreement within its ranks or that the commission, having reached agreement, will give the General Assembly – which can only vote yes or no – a plan it rejects. What kind of communication is allowed between the commission and legislature isn’t clear, but the final stop in the event of an impasse is the Virginia Supreme Court. If the commission process breaks down, the court will draw the map.
This could get messy, but that’s the nature of democracy, and in this case we’re trying to improve a broken process and do something we’ve never done before. So, yes, delays, challenges and maybe an impasse could occur. However, if cool heads prevail, if the commissioners stay focused on their task, and the legislature at least feels the process was fair, and gives it their nod, then our electoral process in the commonwealth will be just that much better.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.