Some Dems sour on re­dis­trict­ing amendment

Northam says it’s not only way to keep maps from ger­ry­man­der­ing

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY MEL LEONOR

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

BOB BROWN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

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.

BOB BROWN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

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