While the Nov. 2 election has dominated recent headlines, the process to redraw state and federal legislators’ districts has been moving along six months late due to delays in receiving U.S. Census data.
Ever since Elbridge Gerry signed a bill to draw several Federalists out of their seats in 1812, gerrymandering has been a problem in the United States. I have always believed that redistricting is one of the most significant fundamental problems in American democracy, and it has become especially problematic with the power of computer-aided mapping coupled with Big Data. Voters should pick their elected officials instead of elected officials picking their voters.
Based on this principle, I have always supported nonpartisan redistricting. In the 2019 Virginia General Assembly session, several members introduced a constitutional amendment requiring nonpartisan redistricting, but after it emerged from rewrites in the legislative process it became bipartisan redistricting, which is very different. In 2020, legislators approved the measure a second time. I was one of two Senators who voted “no” because I do not support the involvement of elected officials or partisans in redistricting and I believe the proposal was inadequately thought out. The amendment was placed on the ballot and approved by voters 65.6% to 34.31% in November 2020.
This summer, the Virginia Redistricting Commission was created and began work redrawing state Senate, House of Delegates and Virginia’s Congressional districts after census data became available in late August. Four senators, four delegates and eight citizens were appointed, equally balanced between Democrats and Republicans. The Commission gridlocked on every important vote from the first day. It had two chairs, two lawyers and two map drawers. They could not agree on a committee process, on Virginia law or the requirements of the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. They produced multiple separate maps for every district and were unable to reconcile any of them because they ostensibly disagreed on the law and would not negotiate.
Once the commission process fails, the Constitution requires the Supreme Court of Virginia to draw districts. Democrats and Republicans are required to submit three or more proposed special masters, legal representatives of the court who have no “conflicts of interest.” The Supreme Court is required to pick one person to serve as a special master from each list, people who will be charged with putting together the maps within 30 days of their appointment. No one knows how that will work given that courts typically only pick one special master in court-administered proceedings.
Last week, the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses submitted three names. Each were experienced academics who had been previously selected by judges to redraw districts that suffered from legal or constitutional violations. The Republican Caucuses took a different tack. They proposed three partisans who have never been appointed by any court in America to serve: (1) the Executive Director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust; (2) a Republican consultant who drew the hotly litigated 2010 Wisconsin Senate map for the Wisconsin Republicans and is now drawing maps for Texas Republicans; and (3) a data researcher who was paid $20,000 by the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus two months ago for “consulting services.”
The Senate and House Democratic Caucuses asked the Court to set deadlines for all caucuses to submit maps and for public hearings before and after the maps are proposed to give the public an opportunity to comment on the proposals. We also asked the Court to set up an online commenting system so that all comments can be filed and accessed electronically instead of submitted on paper and only reviewable in the Supreme Court Clerk’s office in Richmond. The Republican Caucuses refused to join our request.
No one is really sure what the process will be at this point. However, the Supreme Court is accepting comments in writing at its clerk’s office. Please stay tuned to my Facebook, Twitter and Blog for information about how to participate. Redistricting now will happen very fast and these districts will be in place until after the 2030 census.
Many predict that there will be major changes to state Senate and U.S. Congressional districts in Northern Virginia given their current boundaries and population changes since the last census. Major changes are possible for some House of Delegates districts. The proposals and comment process, as allowed by the Supreme Court, will take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas or maybe beyond.
Please stay tuned and contact me if you have any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. It is an honor to serve in the Virginia Senate,