RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Democrats are in the spotlight as they argue over how legislative and congressional boundaries should be drawn, with only a few days left to make a decision.
Redistricting reform has been a top priority for Democrats in Virginia and around the country after a tea party wave a decade ago helped Republicans convert big electoral gains into favorable congressional and state legislative maps. Democrats have called those maps political gerrymanders that have helped accelerate polarization and entrench minority rule.
Many Democrats have pledged to back changes to make sure voters pick their politicians and not the other way around, and Virginia represents a key opportunity to put their money where their mouth is.
“All eyes are on Virginia,” Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor and former California governor who is an anti-gerrymandering advocate, tweeted earlier this week.
Virginia Democrats are split on what redistricting reforms should look like and lawmakers are continuing to put off any final decisions as this year’s legislative session winds to a close.
The U.S. Constitution requires a census once every 10 years. The census conducted this year will be used to redraw districts for the U.S. House and state House and Senate chambers next year.
Both parties have been accused of using partisan advantage to draw unfair maps and more than a dozen states, both conservative and liberal, have passed some sort of redistricting procedures designed to keep partisanship in check.
This year, voters in 35 states will elect more than 5,000 state lawmakers who will help craft the new district maps.
Virginia is ahead of the curve because it holds off-year legislative elections. Democrats won full control of the General Assembly last year for the first time in a generation and are now in charge of determining how maps are drawn next year.
Schwarzenegger and many other anti-gerrymandering advocates around the country are urging Virginia lawmakers to accept a proposed constitutional amendment establishing a bipartisan commission made up of lawmakers and citizens charged with drawing maps.
The measure passed the General Assembly last year with broad bipartisan support and must pass again without any changes this year before going to voters for final approval.
Republicans said the delay in passage of the amendment is an ominous sign that Democrats aren’t serious about redistricting reform.
“Somebody needs to make a decision, let everybody know what their decision is,” said House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert. “I hope it’s that they follow through with their longstanding commitment.”
But several black lawmakers in the state House objected to the proposed amendment last year on the grounds that it would dilute African Americans’ influence in drawing maps. They still oppose it this year, and have proposed an alternative 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 alternative 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 alternative plan would still give the General Assembly that power.
Proponents of the proposed amendments have advanced accompanying legislation that would ensure minority representation on the commission and limit the Supreme Court’s discretion at drawing maps in the event of a stalemate. But opponents of the constitutional amendment said those measures are still inadequate and a new one is needed.
“There is no way that I get to a yes vote for a fatally flawed amendment that does not equally protect voters of color,” said Del. Cia Price.
Price’s alternative plan has the backing of some liberal groups and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is led by former Attorney General Eric Holder and endorsed by former President Barack Obama.
The Senate has already passed the proposed amendment this year — with strong support from black senators — and there are more than enough votes to pass it on the House floor. After a lengthy delay, a House committee on Thursday scheduled a hearing on the amendment Friday.
Meanwhile, the Senate has put off making a final decision on Price’s alternative proposal.
The session is set to end by March 7.
The worst outcome, said some anti-gerrymandering advocates, would be if nothing passed. Terrance Carroll, the former Democratic Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, said it would hurt Democrats’ image nationwide.
“It would send a strong message about the commitment of the party to its own principles … and whether the party is for power for power’s sake or whether it’s really a party about empowering the people that elected them,” he said.