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A breakdown of the redistricting debate

This week, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed moving town and city elections to the Nov. 3 general election and primaries to June 23. In both cases, he cited the coronavirus, in which his Stay-at-Home Order added to the problem.

The General Assembly will have to agree to change the town elections on April 22. This creates any number of questions about absentee ballots that have already been sent out with the elections two weeks away at that point.

ENDING GERRYMANDERING

For a decade, many Virginia Democrats, some Republicans, and anti-gerrymandering advocates have pushed to take away the General Assembly’s constitutionally-derived power to draw political maps and give it to an outside commission.

Begrudgingly, the House of Delegates voted 54-46 to approve a constitutional amendment creating that commission. After days of tense closed-door caucus meetings, nine House Democrats joined with 45 Republicans to approve the measure. If Virginia voters give approval in a November ballot referendum, the commission will be formed to redraw the state’s General Assembly and congressional districts next year using new census data.

But the commission concept that won bipartisan approval in the General Assembly for the second year in a row did so over strong objections from some Democrat lawmakers despite their support last year. Put another way, they wanted to block the referendum so that they could gerrymander next year’s redistricting. Last year, the same amendment passed the House 83-15, most Democrats voting for it.

Supporters of the plan called it a bipartisan step that could restore some measure of faith in the democratic process, producing fairer maps with less potential to be drawn to favor one party or the other. Adopting the substitute plan House Democrats offered this week, they said, would restart the clock on redistricting reform, ensuring no constitutional commission could redraw maps until 2031.

Anti-gerrymandering group OneVirginia2021 hailed Friday’s vote as a “historic day for representative democracy in Virginia.” Though House Democrats wrestled with deep internal division over the proposal, Senate Democrats overwhelmingly supported it.

The proposed constitutional amendment calls for a 16-member, bipartisan commission. Half of the members would be state legislators, with equal representation from the two major parties and the two chambers. The other eight seats would go to citizen members.

The new Democrat Speaker of the House, Eileen Filler-Corn, opposed passage of this year’s required passage for it to go to the voters. Last year, she supported passage. This year, with her newly gained power, she fought to the end to have the power to draw the districts to her liking.

The General Assembly would still get an up-or-down vote on maps created by the commission. If the commission deadlocked or couldn’t produce a plan with enough support to pass, the Supreme Court of Virginia would take over, appointing two experts — one picked by each party — to lead a court-run redistricting process.

I believe this is a positive for the state. The 15th District has changed three times since I have been in the Senate. Done by both parties, neither are saints. Half of the district has been new each time.

Critics in the House said the amendment didn’t do enough to protect racial minorities and eliminate partisan gerrymandering. Democrat senators who supported the plan said those concerns were addressed by accompanying legislation that sets redistricting criteria and lays out a more in-depth process for how the commission would work. That legislation was put on hold and carried over to next year.

That accompanying legislation, as proposed, had two very concerning issues that will harm our region. It would allow a 5% difference in population from the norm of equal size districts. This would potentially allow Northern Virginia and urban areas, who will have the greatest hand in the redistricting, to have more representation than they rightly should. They could draw each of their districts with 5% fewer, and each rural district with 5% more citizens. A 5% deviation could add up to the total population of Charlotte and Lunenburg combined or Dinwiddie and Amelia combined.

Additionally, their proposal would count prisoners not where they are housed but rather where they lived prior to incarceration. This harms those counties that house state prisoners because those prisoners are a burden on courts and other such services.

FRANK RUFF JR. serves as the 15th District senator in Virginia. He can be reached at Sen.Ruff@verizon.net, (434) 374-5129 or P.O. Box 332, Clarksville, VA 23927.