Two different redistricting reform bills have now passed the two houses of the General Assembly — but whether one emerges as the final victor is an open question.
Yet it’s critical that a bill be passed this year. And not just any bill, but rather the right one.
Redistricting reform requires a constitutional amendment, and Virginia has a multi-step process for passing amendments.
First, the full General Assembly must approve the proposed amendment for presentation to the voters.
Then, after an intervening election has occurred, the full General Assembly must approve the amendment again .
Then the proposal can go to the voters, who must pass the amendment.
Only then can the constitutional change be implemented.
Right now there’s a deadline if reform is to affect the next round of redistricting.
Redistricting will occur after the 2020 Census, once the General Assembly has population figures. Population is important because districts are designed to have roughly equal numbers of voters; each vote in each district is therefore statistically equal in impact.
But population is just one piece of the puzzle.
Districts also are supposed to be “compact and contiguous” — a requirement that should ensure that districts follow reasonable geographic boundaries and serve to keep communities together.
Instead, districts often wander strange paths, emerging in a shape more resembling a salamander than a centralized, compact block (a process nicknamed gerrymandering). These oddly shaped districts pose difficulties for the lawmakers elected to represent them.
Some of the problem is due to geography — the need to cross mountain or river barriers to reach parts of the district, or simply the need to traverse vast territories: Virginia’s 5th Congressional District ranges from the North Carolina border to just one county shy of the Maryland border.
The second problem is that voters in such disparate communities don’t share the same needs. How does a lawmaker fairly serve constituents when, say, one portion of the district is strongly urban while another is largely rural?
Communities of similar interest are not preserved.
For instance, at the state legislative level, Albemarle County is fractured into two Senate districts and four House of Delegates districts.
Why the fracturing?
Because redistricting lies in the hands of the legislature, and politicians there have figured out how to shape districts to serve their partisan goals — protect an incumbent or make election tough for any candidate not of their party. Their interest is in serving themselves, not in offering voters a chance at competitive elections in which real political choices are available.
Democrats have done it to Republicans, and Republicans have done it to Democrats.
In recent years, Republicans have been in power, and they’ve consistently squelched redistricting reform.
This year they took note of the growing power of Democrats, and of Virginians’ long-standing support for reform, and offered their own redistricting bill in the House of Delegates.
The bill, which passed, is considered problematic by many, in part because it still leaves redistricting in the hands of politicians — this time through a commission that would be composed of Democrats and Republicans.
A different bill cleared the state Senate. That bill has several advantages, including the composition of the redistricting commission — eight legislators and eight citizens, which would have a better chance of ensuring nonpartisanship.
The Senate bill, however, has been assigned to a House committee known as a legislative graveyard.
If reform is to have a chance at the next redistricting cycle, it first must pass this session of General Assembly.
But it’s important that reform actually accomplish the goal of reducing partisanship. The Senate bill — SJ306 — is the better vehicle for that purpose.