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Virginia Voters Decisively Approve Redistricting Commission

While Virginia’s U.S. Congressional delegation looks like it will remain largely unchanged after the 2020 general election, voters approved a state constitutional amendment that will reshape the process for how their representatives will be chosen in the future.

One of two statewide referendums on the ballot, Constitutional Amendment 1 shifts responsibility for drawing congressional and state legislative district lines from the Virginia General Assembly to a redistricting commission made up of eight legislators and eight appointed citizens.

According to the Virginia Department of Elections unofficial returns, Amendment 1 passed with 65.91% of voters casting their ballot in favor of it, though a few precincts had not yet reported results by Wednesday night and the results will not be official until they are certified on Nov. 16.

Fairfax County approved the measure by a smaller margin than the overall state, with 53.69% of voters supporting it and 46.31% opposing.

“From the start, this movement has been about putting the voices of citizens above politicians and political parties. Today, Virginia voters spoke loud and clear in approving Amendment 1,” Fair Maps VA executive director Brian Cannon and campaign co-chairs Wyatt Durrette and Bobby Vassar said in a joint statement on Wednesday (Nov. 4).

Fair Maps VA is a nonprofit advocacy organization formed in July by OneVirginia2021, the coalition of policymakers and citizens that spearheaded the redistricting commission proposal.

With Virginia set to redraw district lines next year, Fair Maps VA says the proposed commission will combat partisan gerrymandering by giving members of the public “a seat at the table” instead of leaving redistricting exclusively in the hands of legislators, as previously dictated by the Constitution of Virginia.

The General Assembly will vote on new district maps, but it will not be able to change them. If new maps are not approved by set deadlines, the Supreme Court of Virginia will draw them.

“In creating a bipartisan redistricting commission…[voters] said they want a transparent redistricting process,” Cannon, Durrette, and Vassar said. “They want civil rights protections to be added to the state constitution for the very first time. And they said that they want to end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia once and for all.”

However, opponents argue the proposed commission still gives lawmakers too much authority in the once-a-decade redistricting process, allowing them to shape district boundaries to benefit themselves or their party.

Some are wary of the role judges will play in the new process. In addition to giving the Supreme Court the power to draw district maps if necessary, the amendment puts retired circuit court judges in charge of selecting citizens that legislators will ultimately appoint to the commission.

Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus criticized the amendment for not guaranteeing representation on the commission for people of color, who are often targeted by gerrymandering.

“I was a little surprised at the lopsidedness of the outcome,” Del. Marcus Simon (D-53rd District) said of Amendment 1’s passage. “I hoped we would’ve done a better job at communicating some of the flaws with the constitutional amendment and convincing folks that we can do a better job of redistricting reform without the amendment than with it.”

Like many other Democrats, Simon initially supported the amendment when legislation to put it on the ballot passed the General Assembly in 2019, but he reversed his position when the issue came up again, as required by state law, during the 2020 session.

Now that the amendment has passed, however, Simon says the General Assembly can craft legislation to address the issues that people have raised, such as bills to establish qualifications for citizens appointed to the commission, ensure diverse representation, and limit the Supreme Court’s discretion.

With the General Assembly still in a special session first convened in August to address the state budget and criminal justice reform, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam will likely introduce the first set of enabling legislation for the redistricting commission by the end of this week, and state lawmakers could vote on the proposals early next week, according to Simon.

“I think we can continue to work on a better constitutional amendment for 2031,” Simon said. “So, I plan to start working right away to try to get us to achieve truly independent and nonpartisan redistricting, if not in time for this redistricting, then for the future.”

Photo via Element5 Digital/Unsplash

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