A big step toward fair redistricting

March 07, 2019

The Smithfield Times
Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Virginia took a major step toward eliminating the gerrymandering of legislative districts during the waning days of the now-concluded General Assembly session.

States are charged with creating congressional and state legislative districts after the national census is conducted every 10 years. Historically, the Virginia General Assembly has undertaken that task and has created districts that favored the party in power at the time. That has always involved a degree of gerrymandering, or selectively creating odd-shaped districts that contain voters the con- trolling party believes are best suited to keeping that party in power.

A national movement is now gaining momentum to end party gerrymandering by having bipartisan commissions undertake the decennial redistricting, and the General Assembly just held has joined that movement.

A joint resolution adopted unanimously by the Virginia Senate and 83-15 by the House of Delegates is the first step in creating a bipartisan approach to the redistricting that will take place in 2021.

The resolution would amend the Virginia Constitution to create a 16-member Redistricting Commission. It would be a bipartisan rather than nonpartisan group. Leaders of each party in the General Assembly would be given the opportunity to appoint equal numbers of members to the organization and to nominate citizen members, who would then be named by a panel of retired Circuit Court judges.

The commission would undertake the redistricting and would be required to have a supermajority before submitting Congressional, Senate and House plans to the General Assembly. Those supermajority votes would mean that a majority of commission members from both parties would have to reach agreement.

The General Assembly would be given authority to accept or reject the plans, and if rejected, the com- mission would be sent back to the drawing board. After a second try, if the Assembly still would not accept the plans, they would be sent to the State Supreme Court to draw final districts.

Virginia’s governor would have no say in the redistricting, thus preventing the political scale to be tipped toward one party or the other as a result of who resides in the governor’s mansion.

This year’s vote on the process is only a first step. In order to amend the Constitution, the resolution must be passed by a majority vote in both houses next year, and then must be submitted to the public for a vote in the fall of 2020.

It’s worth noting that the three senators representing Isle of Wight and Surry counties — Louise Lucas, Tommy Norment and John Cosgrove — all voted for the amendment, as did Del. Emily Brewer, who represents most of Isle of Wight. Del. Roslyn C. Tyler, who represents Surry and a sliver of Isle of Wight, voted against the resolution.

Adoption of the resolution is a huge step toward a more equitable redistricting process for all Virginians, and the General Assembly should be commended for taking it.