by Chris Ambrose
Legislation is beginning to appear that would breath some life back into the goal of an independent non-partisan redistricting process in Virginia. We desperately need an alternative to the partisan process outlined in the proposed constitutional amendment that suffocates the idea of an independent commission.
Today, Delegate Cia Price introduced HB1256, which sets up an independent commission that excludes legislators and is similar to what OneVirginia2021 had proposed prior to the current amendment. The commission would consist of 11 members, four Democrats, four Republicans and three unaffiliated voters. The selection process is different and not quite as independent as OneVirginia2021’s, but still quite independent. In the case of OneVirginia2021’s orginal proposal, the legislative leaders from both parties could strike commission members but not pick them. With this proposal, four of the commissioners are picked from the pool of applicants by the two major parties (two Democrats and two Republicans). One unaffiliated member is selected through a random drawing. Then those five members select the other six.
This is much better than the proposed amendment where half the commission are sitting legislators and the other half are chosen by the legislature. However, I see two flaws in Del. Price’s proposed commission structure, one small and one big. First the small one. I feel the commission should contain preferably five, but at least four unaffiliated voters.
The other flaw is more significant. The rules would require a supermajority of seven votes to approve maps. Nothing wrong with that. But with eight members from the two major parties on it and only three unaffiliated members, the two major parties could horse trade voters and engage in incumbent protection efforts and cut a deal that excludes the unaffiliated members.
There are two potential ways to fix this. Either increase the number of unaffiliated members to five and require nine votes to approve a map or, if the number to approve a map remains at seven, require at least one vote from each of the three classes of commission members. I believe it best to also increase the number of unaffiliated members to at least four, but this is not as important as ensuring that at least one unaffiliated commission member be required to sign off on the maps.
As important as I feel it is to ensure that the unaffiliated members of the commission are not cut out of the process, it needs to be pointed out just how major of an improvement this is over the proposed amendment. While Delegate Price’s legislation as currently written would theoretically allow a bipartisan gerrymander by cutting out the unaffiliated voters, it would still be a challenge to do this with no legislators on the commission and only four of the eleven citizens on the commission picked by the legislators. But why take the chance? This should be tightened up. We cannot risk having the unaffiliated members of the commission become mere spectators in the process.
Two other shortfalls I see in the legislation are:
- It does not contain a priority ranking for the criteria for drawing the districts. Most, if not all, of the systems I have looked at prioritize the criteria. And that makes sense because undoubtedly they will come into conflict and the commission needs to know which one trumps which. Without that priority ranking it becomes totally subjective and the criteria become almost meaningless.
- The other shortfall is that none of the criteria in Del. Price’s proposal include a proportionality consideration. More states are looking at such formulas to reduce the wasted votes that occur when too many people are packed into districts with similar voter preferences. Proportionality also increases the competitiveness of districts and can decrease the partisan divide in society.
Delegate Mark Levine has introduced HB1054, which includes a formula that would ensure that the statewide proportion of districts whose voters, based on previous elections, favor each party correspond reasonably well with the statewide preferences of the voters. This proposal, or something like it, deserves serious consideration.
Overall, this legislation is a major step forward from where we were with that amendment and I want to thank Delegate Price for proposing it. I hope she is open to some improvements.