In the closing days of the legislative session, Democrats in the House of Delegates put off a make-or-break vote on redistricting reform and unveiled an alternative proposal that could kill the constitutional amendment the General Assembly passed last year.
The substitute proposal offered by Del. Marcus Simon, D-53rd, of Fairfax, would also restart the clock on amending the state Constitution, creating an independent redistricting commission that would not be in place in time for the 2021 map-drawing process. Because it takes at least two years to change the Constitution, the constitutional commission proposed by Simon could only redraw maps starting in 2031.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn’s office said the redistricting reform votes would be put off until Friday, one day before the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn.
The maneuver was the latest twist in the Democrats’ debate over how to deliver on their years-long campaign promise to end gerrymandering in Virginia.
House Democrats are deeply divided over the original commission concept that passed the General Assembly with bipartisan support last year. Both chambers have to pass it in the exact same form this year. The Senate approved it in a 38-2 vote, but the House has pushed its vote to the final week of the session.
Simon said the delay would give delegates a chance to review the two proposals overnight. He characterized his new plan as a superior option that gets closer to the type of reform anti-gerrymandering advocates envision.
“This is our way of letting folks know that we aren’t voting against reform,” Simon said. “And we certainly aren’t voting for traditional, partisan, political gerrymandering.”
OneVirginia2021, an anti-gerrymandering group that has spent seven years advocating and reform and supports the commission that passed last year, released a statement calling for a floor vote on the original proposal.
“The substitute being offered at the eleventh hour will entrench partisan control of redistricting into the state constitution, which will ensure gerrymandering and ongoing political fights through the legislature and the courts for the next decade,” said Brian Cannon, OneVirginia2021’s executive director.
Republicans characterized the move as the latest of several stall tactics designed to kill a proposal that, if passed by the House, could be approved by voters this fall and enacted for 2021.
On the floor, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-15th, of Shenandoah, suggested the newly unveiled plan “would effectively kill the constitutional amendment for this year and effectively for the next 10 years.”
“That is in fact one of the considerations folks will have to sleep on,” Simon said, before clarifying that the constitution could be changed in just two more years and legislation could be enacted to take care of the 2021 process.
The original proposal calls for a 16-member, bipartisan commission that would use new census data to redraw the state’s General Assembly and congressional districts in 2021. Eight of those seats would go to sitting legislators, and the other eight would go to citizen members. The commission requires equal partisan representation, and the two parties would have strong veto power to block maps they oppose.
Some House Democrats believe the original proposal is fatally flawed, arguing it doesn’t do enough to prevent partisan gerrymandering, relies on the conservative-leaning Supreme Court of Virginia as a backstop if the commission fails and doesn’t include strong enough protections for communities of color.
Simon’s proposal calls for an 11-member commission made up entirely of citizen members, with current or former General Assembly members explicitly barred from eligibility. Commissioners would be selected through a process determined by the General Assembly and conducted by the secretary of the commonwealth, an appointee of the governor. The proposal says the commissioners must be “as a whole, representative of the racial, gender, political and geographic diversity of the commonwealth.” It does not require equal partisan representation.
The alternative plan also includes more direct language protecting the rights of racial and language minority groups to “elect representatives of their choice.”
“This is what the advocates for a truly apolitical, nonpartisan redistricting process say they want,” Simon said. “We’re offering folks an opportunity to vote for what we think redistricting should look like.”
The new proposal comes after several days of passionate speeches from some black lawmakers who said their concerns were ignored in a rush to embrace the original proposal, which they say is deeply flawed.
“Maybe our voices only matter when they go along with your cause,” Del. Cia Price, D-95th, of Newport News, said on the House floor Thursday.
Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-63rd, of Petersburg, said the redistricting reform push represented a “permanent silencing” of the black delegates who strongly opposed it two years in a row, both before and after Democrats took control of the legislature.
“And dare I say an erasure of their presence from this body,“ Aird said. “And the voice of the vulnerable populations that they represent.”
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus is also divided on the amendment. Though several of its members have denounced the proposal on the House floor, all four African American senators have supported it.
“There is not just one option for ensuring people of color are part of the redistricting process,” Sen. Mamie Locke, D-2nd, of Hampton said on Twitter last month. “Some want the legislature to continue to pick its voters under the guise of offering necessary protection for communities of color. There are other options that accomplish [that] goal.”
In a response to the opposition earlier this week, Del. Mark Cole, R-88th, who represents parts of Fauquier and Spotsylvania counties, noted that the 2011 redistricting plan passed with broad support from black lawmakers and was approved by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department, led by then-Attorney General Eric Holder.
Portions of that plan — which included a 55 percent black voter threshold in majority-minority districts that made those districts more secure for African American incumbents but made neighboring districts safer for white Republicans — were later struck down. Federal courts found the fixed black voter threshold amounted to unconstitutional racial gerrymandering.
Del. Lamont Bagby, D-74th, of Henrico, the chair of the black caucus, has said black members who went along with the 2011 plan did so because it was the only way for them to have a say in the process.
Under the proposed commission system, Cole said, federal lawsuits would still be an option to challenge any perceived racial violations.
“It can always be appealed to the federal courts,” Cole said. “Anything the Virginia Supreme Court does, anything this body does, can be appealed to the federal courts.”