Virginia’s House of Delegates Votes Itself Out of District Line Drawing Business

March 10, 2020 by Dan McCue
The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond in a 2003 file image. Democrats won decisive majorities in the House of Delegates and state Senate in voting on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, setting the state on a new course. (Renee Enna/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The Virginia House of Delegates has voted to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to largely strip itself of the power to draw new political maps next year, instead placing responsibility in the hands of an independent commission.

By a 54-46 vote late last week, Delegates approved a ballot measure establishing the independent commission to draw new district maps in 2021.

The State Senate had earlier voted, 38-2, in favor of the proposed amendment. If the voters approve the measure, separate legislation will have to be passed laying out rules for the panel and its actions.

The bill passed with most of the Democrats in the Democratically-control House voting against it. The party holds 55 seats in the chamber, but only five supported the measure. Only support from the Republican minority ensured that the proposal would go before the voters.

After the vote, Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, took to Twitter to declare the chamber’s actions “great news for Virginia and a national model of bipartisan reform of gerrymanders.”

Earlier the Center had sent a letter to the leadership in the Virginia House of Delegates on behalf of a coalition of 11 nonpartisan groups who advocate for a better democracy.

If approved by voters in the fall, the amendment will create a “hybrid commission” of 16 members, composed of eight legislators and eight citizens, evenly balanced by party affiliation. There are added protections for racial and ethnic communities, and the system will be opened up to increased public input and transparency.

Significantly, former Attorney General Eric Holder, leader of the Democrat’s national campaign against gerrymandering, has not endorsed the plan, fearing that its protections against partisan interference were not strong enough.

On Friday, Mr. Holder said in a statement that he was still concerned about the amendment’s protections for minorities, and said he worried that there would be too little time for an independent panel to be assembled and start work before redistricting begins in early 2021. 

However, he did concede debate over alternative amendments “helped bring to light some of its weaknesses, many of which, but not all, have been addressed by enabling legislation.”

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