Some Dems sour on redistricting amendment
Northam says it’s not only way to keep maps from gerrymandering
Virginia Democrats, splintered on how to approach political redistricting in 2021, are up against a tight deadline to coalesce, and the number of proposals is only growing.
A proposed constitutional amendment that passed with bipartisan support last year is up for a second and final vote before the General Assembly, but some Democrats are distancing themselves from the measure and proposing alternate ways to secure a bipartisan process. House and Senate Republican leaders have said their caucuses support the amendment.
Even Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he supports the amendment, shared concerns about it in a recent interview and said it is not the only way to give Virginians non-gerrymandered maps.
The amendment would shift power over the drawing of legislative and congressional districts from the General Assembly to a 16-member commission of legislators and citizens. In the event of an impasse, the Supreme Court of Virginia would have the final say.
If the proposed amendment clears the legislature during this session, it would go to a November referendum in which Virginia voters would have the power to approve it or shut it down.
Del. Mark Levine, DAlexandria, has become a leading voice against the amendment, and particularly opposes the Supreme Court’s role. He says that court, controlled by conservatives, could yield gerrymandered maps that favor the GOP.
Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chair of the legislature’s black caucus, also has long expressed concerns with the amendment, arguing that it doesn’t guarantee representation for minorities on the commission.
Meanwhile, Sens. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Mamie Locke of Hampton, both in the chamber’s Democratic leadership, filed legislation to enact the amendment they say addresses those concerns. It calls for diversity in the commission, and gives the Supreme Court parameters within which to operate in the event that the maps come before it.
Asked in an interview if she supports a path forward that doesn’t include the constitutional amendment, Lucas said flatly, “No.”
Lawmakers in each chamber will have until Feb. 20 to make up their minds on the measure after House Democrats sought unsuccessfully to nix the deadline for considering constitutional amendments. Related legislation should be finalized by the last day of session in mid-March.
It’s all part of a strict redistricting timeline.
The counting of the population by the U.S. Census Bureau will take place April 1.
Virginia will get its results by the end of 2020, an expedited schedule to accommodate redistricting ahead of the elections for the House of Delegates in November 2021.
Absentee voting for state primaries could start as early as January 2021.
Levine describes the proposed constitutional amendment as “recipe for severe gerrymandering.”
He said all it would take for the maps to wind up in the hands of the state Supreme Court, controlled by Republicans, is two of the four GOP legislators on the redistricting commission parting with the rest of the membership.
Once in the hands of the Supreme Court, he believes no guidelines from the General Assembly would be able to trump its decision.
Levine said the amendment calls on the court to “establish” maps.
“The constitution trumps other law,” he said.
Northam shared concerns about the state Supreme Court’s purview.
“I’m not sure that’s the best way to go,” he said in a recent interview. “I mean, just look at the makeup of the Supreme Court, whether it be at the state level or the national level. I think not everybody would feel comfortable with that approach.”
Northam said unequivocally that if the amendment passes, he will support it.
“If it doesn’t, I will continue to advocate for nonpartisan redistricting and that will need to be a piece of legislation that I will pass,” he said. “So I’m committed to making sure that in Virginia, if I have anything to do with that process, it’s nonpartisan redistricting.”
Levine was among the lawmakers who voted for the proposed amendment last year. Asked about that vote, he said he went with the only measure available to his party at the time.
“It’s not like we had a choice of several delicious apples and we chose a rotten one. We had no choice and we were hungry, so we ate the rotten apple,” Levine said. “Now, with power, we can have a full apple orchard of the very best apples in the country. Why would we go back to that rotten apple?”
He said in an interview that he was in the process of retooling his redistricting proposals with the aid of experts from different states. Levine expects his new approach to be finalized Monday.
The crux of his plan, he said, is that the maps should yield representation in the General Assembly that mirrors the statewide popular vote. For example, he said that if 55% of voters statewide support one party, then roughly 55% of the seats in each chamber should belong to that party.
He said his method would call for the use of the past two statewide elections for lieutenant governor and attorney general as a guide.
“I chose the two where I felt people were least likely to know who’s running, purposely, as a party barometer. My goal is to get a generic party makeup,” Levine said. He excluded presidential and gubernatorial races because personality preferences, rather than party, influence voter choice in those races.
“People have unique views on Trump and Hillary Clinton,” he said. “That wasn’t my goal.”
In the Senate, Lucas said she was optimistic most concerns with the amendment would be quelled by the legislation she filed.
One bill specifies guidelines for how maps will be drawn that calls for “contiguity, compactness, racial and ethnic fairness, respect for existing political boundaries, and respect for existing communities of interest,” and bans political party considerations. The other calls on the state Supreme Court to abide by those parameters if the decision is left to the court.
Her bills would go into effect if voters approve the constitutional amendment.
“I’m very hopeful that this bill is going to pass because for the longest time, people have been interested in having some bipartisan participation with redistricting,” she said. She rebuffed concerns that the Supreme Court could ignore those parameters.
“At the end of the day, everybody has got to abide by the law. That’s what it is,” Lucas said. “Even the Supreme Court has to follow the laws that are written by the legislators.”
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, echoed that view.
McClellan filed her own bill stipulating guidelines for how to draw the redistricting maps, whether it’s done through the constitutional amendment or by the legislature.
The bill calls for maps that protect the rights of racial and language minorities, takes into account municipal boundaries and communities, and calls for racial and ethnic fairness. No political data can be used to create the maps.
She believes that legislation setting clear criteria — similar to the federal Voting Rights Act — will hold the Supreme Court to standards that will yield fairness for voters. If the amendment doesn’t pass, then lawmakers have parameters with which to work.
Still, McClellan would prefer it happen through the amendment to empower people outside the legislature to have the final say. Without it, the constitution requires the legislature to have the final approval, and any group or expert tasked with creating the maps would simply have an advisory role.
“At the end of the day, we would have to vote for the lines,” she said, arguing that a bill giving final say to a commission would bind future legislatures unconstitutionally. “You can’t bind the General Assembly.”
“It’s not like we had a choice of several delicious apples and we chose a rotten one. We had no choice and we were hungry, so we ate the rotten apple. Now, with power, we can have a full apple orchard of the very best apples in the country. Why would we go back to that rotten apple?” Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria
Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton (left), and Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, members of the Democratic leadership, are trying to address concerns with the proposed constitutional amendment on redistricting.