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Virginia votes to establish a bipartisan commission in charge of drawing election redistricting maps

By passing Question 1, voters are saying they no longer want the Virginia General Assembly to create congressional and state legislative district boundaries.

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia residents have voted in support of Question 1, transferring the power to draw election redistricting maps from the state legislature to a bipartisan commission composed of state legislators and citizens, according to the Associated Press.

The Constitutional Amendment question on Virginia ballots addressed who would oversee drawing election redistricting maps for the U.S. House of Representatives, the State Senate, and the House of Delegates moving forward. 

Here’s how the question was worded on Virginia ballots: 

Should the Constitution of Virginia be amended to establish a redistricting commission, consisting of eight members of the General Assembly and eight citizens of the Commonwealth, that is responsible for drawing the congressional and state legislative districts that will be subsequently voted on, but not changed by, the General Assembly and enacted without the Governor's involvement and to give the responsibility of drawing districts to the Supreme Court of Virginia if the redistricting commission fails to draw districts or the General Assembly fails to enact districts by certain deadlines?

Under the current Constitution, the General Assembly and the governor are responsible for drawing new election districts, which are required to be compact and contiguous, and to have populations that are equal to each other.

However, the “yes” vote on Question 1 shifts the responsibility of drawing these election districts from the General Assembly and the governor to a bipartisan commission, made up of 16 persons, half being members of the General Assembly and half being citizens of the Commonwealth. This commission will draw the election districts and then submit the maps to the General Assembly for approval. 

If the commissioners are unable to agree on proposals for maps by a certain date, or if the General Assembly does not approve the submitted maps by a certain date, the commission is allotted additional time to draw new districts, but if maps are not then submitted or approved, the Supreme Court of Virginia becomes responsible for drawing these election districts.

The eight legislative commissioners are appointed by the political party leadership in the state Senate and the House of Delegates, with an equal number from each house and from each major political party. The eight citizen commissioners are picked by a committee of five retired circuit court judges. 

Four of the retired judges are selected by party leaders in the Senate and the House from a list compiled by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia. These four judges pick the fifth judge from the same list. This selection committee then chooses citizen commissioners from lists created by party leaders in the Senate and the House. 

Members and employees of Congress or the General Assembly cannot be citizen commissioners. Each party leader in each house gives the selection committee a list of at least 16 candidates, and the committee picks two from each list for a total of eight citizen commissioners. 

For a plan to be submitted for the General Assembly’s approval, at least six of the eight citizen commissioners and at least six of the eight legislative commissioners must agree to it. Additionally, for plans for General Assembly districts to be submitted, at least three of the four Senators on the commission have to agree to the Senate districts plan and at least three of the four Delegates on the commission have to agree to the House of Delegates districts plan. The General Assembly cannot make any changes to these plans, and the governor cannot veto any plan approved by the General Assembly.

The amendment also adds a requirement that districts provide opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.

The campaign to pass the amendment was spearheaded by a nonprofit called OneVirginia2021. Supporters of the amendment said it is critical to avoiding gerrymandering during the redistricting process. 

“The partisan grip of one party over the redistricting process has dictated the legislative outcome of so many issues over the decades first by Democrats and more recently in the last two decades by Republicans,” Del. Ken Plum (D-36) said. “This abuse of political power increased in the public mind the need for a change in the process of drawing legislative boundary lines. ... The old way of doing business also resulted in overt racial discrimination in the business of government.” 

But those opposed, including the Virginia Democratic Party and the Virginia NAACP, believe the way the amendment is structured would still allow legislators to have control of redistricting, despite the creation of the commission.

"I don’t think it’s better than what we have now and in fact I think it takes a step back because now at least we have African Americans at the table and in the room,” Del. Lamont Bagby (D-74), chairman of Legislative Black Caucus, said.  “I would be willing to bet this reform will lead to African Americans not even being involved in the process.”

It’s important to note that regardless of the amendment passing, election maps in Virginia will be redrawn following the results of the census.

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