by Brandon Jarvis

The process in Virginia to update congressional and General Assembly district boundaries is moving forward under the guidelines listed in the newly-passed constitutional amendment that establishes a redistricting commission.

The commission will be composed of eight elected officials that were appointed by party leaders in each chamber and eight citizens that a chosen in part by a panel of retired judges and in part by the party leaders.

A panel of retired circuit court judges that were selected to oversee the process this year has already been selected by party leaders from a list given to them by the Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. That panel already met in late-November and finalized the steps for the application process for the eight citizens that will be on the commission.

In addition to a questionnaire asking for specifics on the application, the judges added a requirement of three letters of recommendation and they are also requiring applicants to list the reason for leaving a job in the past.

The Department of Legislative Services began accepting applications on Monday and the process will remain open to the public until December 28th.

In order to be considered eligible to serve as a citizen on the commission, applicants are required to have been Virginia residents and registered voters in Virginia for the past three years. It is also a requirement that you have had to of voted in at least two of the last three general elections. Applicants are also not allowed to have held partisan or political office in the past.

The yes/no section of the citizen’s application.

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. The judges have already selected January 5th, 6th, and 7th to work on this process. 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 Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D). “This commission and the multistep process allow for more transparency.”

As for the legislator side of the commission, Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn announced on Monday that her two choices for the commission from her caucus will be Delegate Marcus Simon and Delegate Delores McQuinn. “A Redistricting Commission that represents the racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity of the Commonwealth is necessary to ensure every Virginian has a voice in the redistricting process and in our government. Commissioners will need to be committed to inclusion and dedicated to a fair redistricting process that protects the vote of every Virginian,” said Filler-Corn in the announcement.

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert announced on Tuesday that he appointed Delegates Margaret Ransone and Les Adams to serve on the commission. “Last month Virginians overwhelmingly voted in support of creating a new panel to ensure that Virginia’s legislative mapmaking process isn’t subject to political games. To that end, I have appointed Delegates Les Adams and Margaret Ransone to the Virginia Redistricting Commission, both of whom supported the creation of the Commission throughout,” said Gilbert in the announcement. “With their combined knowledge and experience, I have no doubt they will help craft what the voters have demanded — fair maps for every Virginian.”

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By vascope

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