Redistricting reform has Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly divided.
By Megan Schiffres for Capital News Service
Three redistricting reform proposals that passed the Senate are scheduled to come before the House Elections Subcommittee on Tuesday morning. The measures – SJ 290, SJ 231 and SB 846 – gained bipartisan support and passed the Senate with overwhelming majorities last week.
Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, who is running for lieutenant governor, co-sponsored SJ 290, a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit electoral districts from being drawn for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring any political party, incumbent legislator or individual. She held a press conference Monday with OneVirginia2021, a non-profit organization that advocates for nonpartisan redistricting.
Vogel said the biggest obstacle to redistricting reform has been lack of public information.
“Once folks truly start to appreciate that perhaps it isn’t them who are selecting their legislators but in fact the legislators who are selecting them, that actually really makes people stop and take a second look,” Vogel said.
Vogel herself represents seven different localities, including slivers of Culpeper County and Stafford County that were added to her district as a result of the 2011 redistricting. She says gerrymandering undermines the ability of legislators to serve their constituents.
“That was deliberately drawn that way, and that doesn’t mean that I’m less engaged, but certainly it dilutes my ability to have an impact,” Vogel said.
District lines in Virginia are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census and are constitutionally required to be composed of “contiguous and compact territory” and to represent the population of the district. Critics of the system have argued that the process is used for political gain and has been corrupted by partisanship.
“Gerrymandering is simply rigging the outcome of an election before the very first vote is cast. Rather than stuffing the ballot box, incumbents are stuffing their districts,” said Chuck McPhillips, a Republican lawyer and Tidewater regional co-chairman of OneVirginia2021.
So far this session, the House has defeated eight redistricting reform bills, most of which were proposed by Democrats. The debate over redistricting comes just a week after the House Privileges and Elections Committee was booed by the audience for refusing to reconsider five redistricting proposals that one of its subcommittees had killed.
“The House has taken a much more aggressive posture than the Senate has vis-a-vis their willingness to entertain these bills, and in my view, I think a fair and open hearing is critical,” Vogel said.
SJ 231, proposed by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, would establish a seven-member bipartisan commission composed of both party leaders and independent public officials to redraw congressional and General Assembly district boundaries after each decennial census. SB 846, which was proposed by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, would establish an Interim Redistricting Commission to assume control of redistricting if any state or federal court declared the districts drawn by lawmakers to be unconstitutional.
At least one member of the Elections Subcommittee said he is skeptical about having a special commission redraw political lines.
“I don’t think it is wise to hand over constitutional obligations and duties of elected people to unelected people,” said Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Glenn Allen.
Two of the bills before the House are constitutional amendments, and if passed would alter Article 2 Section 6 of the Virginia Constitution. The executive director of OneVirginia2021, Brian Cannon, criticized House Republicans for assigning these bills to the Elections Subcommittee instead of the Constitutional Subcommittee. He believes the proposed amendments would have a better chance of passing in the Constitutional Subcommittee.
“They’re very deliberate about exactly what they’re doing here,” Cannon said.
Chris West, policy communications director for House Speaker William Howell, said the constitutional amendments were moved to the Elections Subcommittee to “show the wide support that the Republican caucus has against redistricting reform.”