Virginia’s political redistricting process may be getting a rules revamp after a bill to create a new “rulebook” passed through the Republican-led House of Delegates on Tuesday. The 6-0 vote from the House Committee on Privileges and Elections gave many anti-gerrymandering supporters a victory as Virginia lawmakers are set to redraw the congressional and state legislator districts in 2021.
House Bill 1598, introduced by Delegate Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), declares that political districts should be redrawn in the interest of, “including equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, respect for existing political boundaries, contiguity, compactness, and communities of interest.” The outlined criteria would be based on figures following the 2020 United States Census and thereafter.
Delegate Jones, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, claims legislation for redistricting should avoid the disproportionate and jagged district lines that have been used in the past to gain political advantage. He also recommends that redistricting measures on a smaller scale could pass through the General Assembly this year. The new legislation, however, may fall short of the completely nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission sought by many anti-gerrymandering advocates.
“We applaud the chairman’s bill and we’re excited to support it,” said Brian Cannon, executive director of anti-gerrymandering group OneVirginia2021. “It’s a good bill with good criteria that we need to have as part of a fair redistricting platform.”
Importantly, the bill does not ban the use of categorical political data in the redistricting process. This has been a key measure Democratic lawmakers argued should be a part of any reform effort.
In a report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, newly-elected Delegate Marcia Price (D-Newport News) said to Delegate Jones, “I sincerely applaud you on your bold action this morning. I simply ask you to be a little bolder.” She was referencing another legislative attempt she had with an unsuccessful pitch for a bill to outlaw gerrymandering based on race and political data.
Delegate Price, who is African-American, explained that with the way the City of Newport News is split between her 95th District and neighboring 94th District, represented by Republican Delegate David Yancey, “it’s like we’re representing two different worlds.”
Delegate Nick Rush (R-Montgomery) then opined on creating districts with racial majorities in reference to her comment.
“When we’re packing minorities into one district, it allows for us to have one strong district where I argue we [minorities] may have two,” Price said.
The Tuesday vote follows a January decision for similar redistricting legislation the State Senate approved by a 22-17 margin. Currently, the OneVirginia2021 anti-gerrymandering reform group opposes 11 Virginia House and Senate districts held by both Republicans and Democrats. They claim the districts are draw in an inconsistent manner without regard to state constitutional requirement.
According to the Virginia Constitution, “Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.” However, the reform group states the redistricting process has ignored, “legal, demographic and commonsense criteria,” and is based on political interests.