A constitutional amendment establishing a bipartisan redistricting commission passed on a ballot referendum with an overwhelming 65% of the vote on election day. That was the final step of approval for the legislation and it is now in Virginia’s Constitution.
Every ten years, right after the census takes place, state legislators are responsible for redrawing congressional and state districts in accordance with the latest population changes. Previously in Virginia, the majority party of the General Assembly would be responsible for creating the districts behind closed doors in conference rooms. There was no bipartisan work taking place and it led to several gerrymandered districts. Federal judges ruled in 2018 that 11 House of Delegates districts were racially gerrymandered and they ordered lawmakers to fix them. The districts were eventually redrawn, mostly benefiting Democrats. The newly-formed commission will be a drastic change from the previous way that the lines were drawn.
The new Process:
By November 15th, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia was required to certify a list of 10 circuit court judges that were willing to be on a redistricting panel – these judges cannot be related to anyone who holds office at the state or federal level. The Chief Justice was then required to send that list over to the party leaders in each chamber of the General Assembly. Each leader then has five business days to choose one judge, then those four judges have three days to select a fifth judge that will serve as the chair of the circuit court panel.
Within three business days of choosing the chair of the panel, the judges are required to adopt an application process to fill the eight citizen member spots on the redistricting commission. The redistricting legislation lays out what is required to be part of the application process, like listing their past partisanship or lobbying record. The legislation also leaves it up to the panel of judges to choose to require letters of recommendation.
The application process for citizens begins on December 1st and will last four weeks. The commission is required to publicize the application process and citizens will be able to submit a paper and electronic application to the Division of Legislative Services (DLS). By early January, that list of citizens will be sent from DLS to the four party leaders and they will each choose 16 people from the list and return those names to the circuit court panel.
The judges on the panel will then have until January 15th to choose two names from each list in a public meeting with a majority vote. Once those eight people are selected, they can no longer have any discussions or contact with members of the General Assembly. In addition to the eight citizens on the commission, the four leaders will also be choosing eight political appointees from the General Assembly, finalizing the 16-member commission.
The next step will be to wait for the census results. If everything goes smoothly, the results will arrive in March. Strategists on both sides of the aisle are worried that the results might be delayed due to alleged tampering from the Trump administration.
However, once the data arrives, the commission will have 45 days to finalize the General Assembly maps and 60 days to finalize the congressional districts. Within those 45 days, the commission is required to hold at least three public meetings for public input. If they are unable to come to an agreement on a map in 45 days, the commission will then be allowed 14 more days to come to an agreement. If they are gridlocked again, the Supreme Court of Virginia would then take over and create the map.
If things go smoothly and the commission does agree on a map in 45 days, the General Assembly would then have 15 days to meet and vote on the map. If the legislators reject the map, the commission will then have 14 days to create and agree on a new drawing. Legislators in the General Assembly will then have seven days to vote for a second time. If the General Assembly still rejects the map, the Supreme Court of Virginia would take over.
While the initial commission process is taking place, the Supreme Court is required to finalize a set of rules by March 1st indicating how they will draw the maps in the case that the responsibility falls to them. For that process, each party leader will choose a Special Master, which is a court appointee that specializes in drawing electoral maps, which would be essentially creating a smaller commission with academics.
“I think there is an incentive for both parties to be honest actors and try to accomplish the goals,” said Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, a chief-patron of the original redistricting legislation in the House of Delegates. “We very publicly as a Commonwealth supported this amendment with over 65% of the vote, so there is a mandate by citizens for this commission to work and I think any party trying to stop the commission would be flaunting public will.”
There is a requirement each step of the way when selecting judges, or members of the commission: diversity. The legislation states that when selections are being made, the selectors “ shall give consideration to the racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity of the Commonwealth.”
Opponents of the redistricting legislation worry that the Supreme Court, which is considered a conservative court, would promote a map that gerrymanders against minorities. Supporters of the bill have recognized that it is not perfect, but they say it provides more transparency and includes a lot more people in the process, instead of just the leaders of the political party in power.
This also throws Virginia’s state elections into a delay. There are 100 House of Delegates races taking place in November and several districts are already seeing primary challengers announce their candidacy. With a best-case scenario, the maps will be completed by late-May or early-June. This would likely push the date for primary elections back to late-August. The race for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, however, can take place without any regard for the new map due to all three being statewide contests.
Those nominating processes could still take place in June if officials choose to take that route, although it would be costly to put on two separate elections.
But this delay would have taken place no matter the method. In 2011 when the Republicans were in charge of drawing the maps, the primary elections took place on August 23rd instead of June 14th. Lawmakers that supported the redistricting legislation say that at least this way there is more transparency in the long process.
“This all allows the citizens and media to shine a line on the process,” said VanValkenburg. “This commission and the multistep process allow for more transparency.”
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