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August 26, 2021 · OPINION

A glimmer of hope emerges from redistricting panel

Virginia Mercury Photo/Ned Oliver
The Virginia Redistricting Commission at its first in-person meeting in July.
By Roger Chesley
The Virginia Mercury

Anti-good government types may have been emboldened last week when panelists met to discuss redrawing Virginia’s political maps. Efforts to improve the redistricting process, so residents have a greater say in who’s representing them — not vice-versa — had taken a beating.

It’s the first time a new 16-member commission, composed of eight citizens and eight state legislators, is drawing the congressional and legislative lines in Virginia. Voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum in 2020, thus snatching the power from the General Assembly to alone set the boundaries after each decennial census.

Voters obviously wanted change; previously, the majority party drew the districts in secret, with little or no input from everyday Virginians.

The inaugural Virginia Redistricting Commission was bound to face some logistical hurdles. However, embarrassment and gridlock descended upon the panel.

An open mic caught Sen. George Barker, a Fairfax Democrat, telling a fellow panel member that most of the public wasn’t really following the sausage-making, so don’t be worried. Panelists declined to hire geographic data specialists from the University of Richmond; wouldn’t they have been neutral in providing technical advice?

Commissioners earlier had picked both Republican and Democratic attorneys as legal counsel, possibly ensuring impasses on some issues. They will also take the home addresses of incumbents into account. That caters too much to the politicians, instead of considering whether districts should be overhauled regardless of where an incumbent officeholder rests her head.

This week’s meeting, though, provided some hope the commissioners might just get it right – or at least, better than in past rounds. One decision sided with citizens who want less gerrymandering and more fairness in the process.

The panel voted, 12-4, to use a blank slate to draw new maps, instead of starting with the existing ones in the commonwealth. That’s in line with public comments at many commission meetings, the League of Women Voters of Virginia said in a statement.

“This decision was a direct result of the tireless advocacy of engaged citizens from every corner of Virginia,” noted Liz White, executive director of OneVirginia2021. Her organization, with 60,000 people on its email list, had fought for years to establish such a panel and bring more transparency to redistricting in the state.

Previously, the redistricting panel had said it would keep cities, town and counties together as much as possible when drawing the boundaries. That move also heartened Ms. White.

“I am holding out hope that their map drawers will work together,” she told me this week, “and they will be able to come to a consensus on maps that are fair to everybody.” She also noted her group is contacting the public to keep Virginians engaged and to send in comments.

There’s no question redistricting should’ve been overhauled in Virginia. The last round after the 2010 census, drawn by state Republican legislators, diluted minority voting strength and led to several legal challenges. A federal court struck down some districts and ordered them redrawn – but not before some candidates reaped the benefits of the skewed map-making.

Court-ordered changes, for example, forced the state mid-decade to reconfigure the 4th U.S. House District, long held by Republican Rep. Randy Forbes. The new, court-ordered 4th was more heavily Democratic, and Mr. Forbes switched districts. He then lost in a Republican primary in 2016.

Yurij Rudensky is a redistricting counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, a nonpartisan, left-leaning law and policy institute. He told me such commissions are important because they can ensure one party or set of interests doesn’t dominate the process.

“In that way,” he added, “it can be an incredibly important safeguard against extreme partisan gerrymandering.”

Which also could cool the rhetoric coming from candidates in both parties.

Virginia’s system is something of a lone hybrid nationwide, in which legislators and citizens together noodle through the maps. “This is a big test,” Mr. Rudensky said. “The reforms in Virginia were a product for political compromise.”

There’s still a long way to go before maps are due in October. The panel will submit new districts to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. If the commission can’t agree on a plan, or the Assembly rejects it, the state Supreme Court would order new maps to be drawn.

So it’s important for the panelists to weigh the various interests, keep communities together and craft districts that make sense. Already, the public debate has been valuable and more transparent than in past years. That’s been a plus.

It just might put the onus on the General Assembly to take the commission’s work seriously – and give it a reasonable airing if and when the panel sends a proposal to legislators.

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