After over a year of advocacy and discussion, the Virginia Senate Privileges and Elections Committee today finally took up the resolutions to amend the Virginia Constitution to create a redistricting commission that would draw the lines for Congressional and General Assembly districts. The two primary proposals were a resolution written by advocacy group 1VA2021 and patroned by Emmett Hanger and Mamie Locke, that would create a commission made entirely of citizens; and a competing resolution written by George Barker and Dick Saslaw, that would create a commission made of 8 legislators and 8 citizens, with ¾ of each required to pass a set of maps.
The General Assembly has drawn the maps for years, leading to funky-shaped gerrymandered maps that are clearly designed to maintain an electoral advantage. These bills would both take at least part of that responsibility away from the legislators and give it to ordinary citizens.
But naturally, the devil is in the details. How the citizens are to be chosen is one issue—with the 1VA2021 resolution leaving that process up to retired judges to decide, and the Barker/Saslaw resolution leaving it up to a random selection from a pool of applicants. The 1VA2021 proposal attempts to ensure a bipartisan commission, specifying the numbers of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents that may serve—but Virginia voters don’t register by party, so it’s unclear what that means. The Barker/Saslaw resolution doesn’t even attempt to ensure bipartisan citizen membership.
There are also differences with the backup plan if the commission is unable to reach a consensus. The 1VA2021 plan doesn’t have a Plan B, which presumably leaves the Courts to decide. The Barker/Saslaw plan allows for a thumbs-up or down vote in the General Assembly and by the Governor; if it fails either, it goes to the Courts. This is necessary because the timing between the Census data release and the primary elections is quite tight, and doesn’t allow for back and forth.
The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee took the resolutions one by one (along with another very unpopular bill by Deeds). The Barker/Saslaw resolution reported out of committee quickly and easily on a 12-1 vote, with only Amanda Chase voting nay. The only hitch was an amendment by Adam Ebbin to include the transparency language (that maps and commission meetings be available and open to the public) from the 1VA2021 bill. This amendment failed, with Janet Howell arguing against, because she felt that detail didn’t belong in the amendment itself but in a separate redistricting criteria bill.
The 1VA2021 resolution was presented by Emmett Hanger, on behalf of himself and Mamie Locke, although there was an identical resolution patroned by Glen Sturtevant. The committee, in particular Edwards and Cosgrove, had several concerns, including those mentioned above. Hanger seemed to read the tea leaves and know the resolution didn’t have the votes. He suggested an up/down vote on Sturtevant’s version, trying to test the waters, and leave a door open for his own. Additionally, he expressed that the numerous people who represented the outstanding advocacy of 1VA2021 deserved to have a part in the process, and rolling his bill into Barker/Saslaw’s would give them that. Sturtevant’s 1VA2021 resolution was easily “passed by indefinitely” (PBI’d, as they say in the General Assembly, or “killed” in layperson’s language).
This left the committee to reconsider the Barker/Saslaw resolution in order to be able to roll in the Hanger/Locke/1VA2021 resolution (which would not incorporate any of the language or ideas of the latter bill, would just be a formality whereby they would be chief co-patrons). The committee reconsidered the vote, but then strangely voted against rolling the Hanger/Locke/1VA2021 resolution in. Cosgrove said he’s never voted for a redistricting bill before and might never again, and seemed very concerned about any of the language of the 1VA2021 bill being incorporated. Hanger didn’t understand why the committee was insulting the advocacy work of 1VA 2021.
Ultimately, the Committee unanimously voted to report the Barker/Saslaw redistricting Amendment resolution to the Senate floor; and PBId the Hanger/Locke/1VA2021 resolution, 8-4.
Interesting day. A few things are still puzzling to me. Lionel Spruill seemed thoroughly confused about which resolution was which, seemed upset at not having heard enough details about them. I have no idea what the objection was to rolling the resolutions together, since that would have kept the language of the Barker/Saslaw resolution intact and merely affected how the resolution is recorded—as PBId or as incorporated in. Either way Hanger and Locke became chief co-patrons of the Barker/Saslaw resolution. Lastly, I have no idea why 1VA2021 didn’t give themselves two chances at their resolution by finding a House sponsor and putting in a version there.
In any case, 1VA2021 lost the vote on their resolution—but they should truly count it as a win that their lobbying and advocacy work created an environment where serial gerrymanderers like Barker and Saslaw heard from so many constituents that they agreed to loosen the legislature’s grip on redistricting; and that reluctant senators like Cosgrove, who’ve never voted for reform before, voted for something today.