RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After a lengthy delay, Virginia Democrats are advancing legislation to amend the state’s constitution to overhaul how new congressional and legislative maps are drawn.
A House committee voted Monday to support a proposed constitutional amendment establishing a bipartisan commission made up of lawmakers and citizens charged with drawing maps, instead of letting lawmakers draw the maps themselves. The measure now heads to the full House, where it is expected to pass in coming days.
Virginia Democrats have been in a national spotlight on redistricting reform after taking full control of the statehouse this year. The party has made redistricting reform a key campaign plank but has been split on whether to support the proposed constitutional amendment or back a different proposal that is friendlier to the new Democratic majority. House leaders delayed making a decision on the measure for much of this year’s legislative session, which is set to end Saturday.
Supporters say the proposed constitutional amendment will limit lawmakers’ ability to gerrymander maps for political advantage.
“It’s a good compromise,” said Republican Del. Mark Cole.
But several black lawmakers have objected to the proposed amendment on the grounds that it could dilute African Americans’ influence in drawing maps.
“It is flawed beyond repair,” said Democratic Del. Cia Price.
The proposed amendment passed last year with broad bipartisan support. Lawmakers need to pass it again this year before it can go to the voters for final approval later this year. The measure has passed the Senate this year already.
Redistricting has long been a hot-button issue in Virginia, where federal judges in recent years have struck down both the state legislative and congressional maps as racially discriminatory.
Opponents of the proposed constitutional amendment supported an alternative that they said ensures fair redistricting next year and allows lawmakers to come up with a better constitutional amendment in future years.
Both the proposed constitutional amendment and the alternate plan would form a bipartisan commission made up of lawmakers and citizens who would present maps to the General Assembly for approval.
But a key difference is who would have the final say in approving new maps if the commission’s work ended in a stalemate. The proposed constitutional amendment would give the last word to the conservative-leaning Virginia Supreme Court while the alternate plan would still give the General Assembly that power.
U.S. House and state House and Senate districts will be redrawn based on the results of this year’s census, making the 2020 election particularly important. The winners could help control who holds power for the next decade, just as Republicans did after a tea party wave a decade ago.
Both parties have been accused of using partisan advantage to draw unfair maps around the country. More than a dozen states, both conservative and liberal, have passed some sort of redistricting procedures designed to keep partisanship in check.