Virginia and Redistricting

Gerrymandering Explored

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The U.S. Census Bureau officially announced on Friday that states will not receive their census data – the information that is used to redistrict – until the end of September. This announcement was not a surprise, given the earlier news that the data would be sent to states around July 31 due to COVID delays, but this later date solidifies that new maps will not be ready for this November’s House of Delegates elections in Virginia.

So what does this mean for the current redistricting process?

For candidates for the House of Delegates, this means that they will be running in November on the existing legislative maps. It is not yet known how this decision will officially be reached, since the Virginia Constitution requires elections on new maps in years ending in “1” and that Constitutional deadline will be impossible to meet.

It remains to be seen is whether the Delegate races will have to be held again in 2022 (meaning that they would run three years in a row) or if they will wait until 2023 to utilize the new maps.

One thing is abundantly clear: the ongoing work of the Commission is unchanged by this delay. Their deadlines are contingent on the arrival of the Census data — so while the map-drawing part of their job will start later, the process will remain the same. See our timeline to better understand the sequence of events that will unfold once the Commission receives the Census data.

Most importantly, our work does not change.

Virginia’s new redistricting process creates space, for the first time, for individuals and communities to weigh in on the placement of district boundaries. Consideration of public input – including Communities of Interest – provides Virginians an unprecedented opportunity to tell the mapmakers about their communities.

Our job is to enable people to fill that space. Every group working on this issue will be encouraging and empowering voices that have been historically marginalized in the redistricting process to speak up and use every tool at their disposal to advocate for themselves and their neighbors.

These delays have absolutely nothing to do with the language in the amendment that created the bipartisan commission. In fact, any redistricting scenario would be impacted by a delay of this magnitude. This is the case in every state in the nation — even those without citizen-led commissions.

There is a bright side to this news: In the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, engaged Virginians have been banding together to create a path forward for those who want our historic commission’s work to produce fair and representative district maps, and now they will have additional time to make sure this decade’s redistricting is done the right way.

Despite lingering, and unfounded, fraud suspicions on the right, a recently issued state report called the 2020 election the “most safe, secure, and successful” in Virginia’s history.

This year, the Democratic-led General Assembly has rejected several Republican proposals to tighten election laws, while preserving several policy changes lawmakers enacted last year on an emergency basis like ballot drop boxes and looser rules for absentee voting.

But another significant election bill has drawn bipartisan support, one that would make it easier for political parties and nonpartisan data analysts to track geographic voting patterns amid a massive increase in absentee ballots.

The 8 citizen members and 8 legislative members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission met for the first time last night, January 21st, for just over an hour and a half where they introduced themselves and expressed their excitement to be contributing to a fair, balanced and impartial redistricting process. For their first order of business, Senator McDougle (SD-4), moved to allow for two citizen co-chairs – one from each party. Senator Barker (SD-39) seconded the motion, and the Commission proceeded to unanimously elect Greta Harris, a Democrat from Richmond, and Mackenzie Babichenko, a Republican from Mechanicsville, after citizen commissioner James Abrenio confirmed the legality of such action with the Department of Legislative Services (DLS).

Meg Lamb, the senior attorney for DLS then spoke to the commission about the delay of census data delivery. She reported that the 2020 census data would likely not be delivered until late summer or early fall, making it unlikely that new districts will be drawn in time for the 2021 elections. In years where new districts are drawn, the primaries are typically moved to August. However, because new districts are unlikely to be ready in time, the 2021 primaries are currently scheduled for June. Senator Barker suggested that in the interim before the data is delivered, the commission can begin its work using preliminary data, noting that population shifts in Virginia haven’t been as large as in the recent past.

Something *very* important for our politics happened on Tuesday
Analysis by Chris Cillizza,January 14, 2021 (Medium)

While the eyes of the world were focused on the impeachment efforts against President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan of neighboring Maryland did something extremely important in beginning the long process of unwinding our current political polarization.

The Republican governor announced that via executive order he had created an independent commission he will task with redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative lines following the decennial reapportionment later this year. Known as the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, the nine-person group will include three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents.

A campaign table at a polling station in Buckingham County, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

A Fredericksburg-area Republican picked for one of the citizen seats on Virginia’s new redistricting commission previously made vulgar or degrading online comments about President Donald Trump’s detractors, calling Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn a “bimbo” and actress Jane Fonda a “b*tch c**t.”

Before the November election, Jose Feliciano Jr., a 52-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran who listed his current job as an agent in the Federal Communications Commission’s public safety bureau, tweeted a photo of a pro-Trump highway caravan and said the only way the president could lose was a “rigged election.”

Screenshots of the tweets were circulated by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which works to advance Democratic interests in redistricting processes throughout the country.

In a statement, the NDRC said Feliciano’s online activity shows he is “unfit to serve” on the commission and questioned why Republicans in the House of Delegates would nominate him to fill one of the four citizen seats reserved for the GOP.

The Mercury could not independently review Feliciano’s Twitter account because it was taken down after he was appointed to the redistricting commission last week. Feliciano said he took the account down Saturday “as a protest to them suspending President Trump.” In an email to the Mercury, Feliciano verified the tweets were his. He said that, in anger, he “used some language I should not have used,” adding what’s “done is done.”

“Looks like other posts are singled out because I am pro Trump, well I am pro Trump,” he said.

Twitter suspended Trump’s account over the president’s role in inspiring the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week by the president’s supporters, violence Feliciano said he fully condemns.

Feliciano was among the 16 nominees for the commission put forward by House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

His application included a letter of recommendation from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, who recently signed on to a letter asking Vice President Mike Pence to overturn Virginia’s 13 Electoral College votes for President-elect Joe Biden based on unfounded fraud suspicions.

House GOP spokesman Garren Shipley declined to comment on Feliciano’s tweets, saying “we don’t comment on redistricting matters.”

Amigo Wade, a legislative staffer who worked with the judges on the process, said the selection committee “will not comment on its decisions regarding the selection of the citizen members.”

The redistricting process hasn’t started yet. The seats on the 16-member commission, approved by voters in November, were just recently filled, with Gilbert and other General Assembly leaders playing a key role in picking which of the more than than 1,200 Virginians who applied were best equipped for the important work of redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional maps in a fair manner.

The eight citizen members were nominated by political leaders in the General Assembly and selected by a panel of retired judges. The other eight seats are reserved for sitting legislators.

Feliciano wasn’t included on the initial shortlist of finalists chosen by the judges, but they added him after realizing their list had no Hispanic members. In his application, Feliciano listed his race as White and Hispanic as his ethnicity.

With eight seats meant to go to Democrats and eight to Republicans, the commission wasn’t designed to be nonpartisan. However, it was generally understood as a way to avoid hyperpartisanship in redistricting.

One of Feliciano’s tweets was directed at the actor Peter Fonda, who made headlines in 2018 for tweeting that Barron Trump, the president’s youngest son, “should be put in a cage with pedophiles,” an apparent response to the controversy over immigrant children being separated from their parents at the southern border. Fonda later apologized for the remark.

In a June 2018 tweet to Fonda, Feliciano said: “you’re a piece of sh*t mother f**ker no different than you b**ch c**t sister!” His post did not use asterisks.

Fonda’s sister is Jane Fonda, an 83-year-old actress and left-wing activist who has sharply criticized Trump.

During the 2018 Winter Olympics, when Vonn failed to win a gold medal after drawing the ire of Trump supporters for saying she wouldn’t visit the White House, Feliciano tweeted to Vonn: “Congratulations great to see that you fell flat on your face, happy losing you losing bimbo.”

On Jan. 5, the day before Trump supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, Feliciano tweeted a video that he suggested showed a police officer giving a “green light” for counter-protesters to “harass and attack Trump supporters.”

In response to a Jan. 5 Trump tweet touting the Jan. 6 rally that devolved into mayhem, Feliciano responded with a photo calling Trump the “GREATEST PRESIDENT IN MODERN DAY HISTORY.”

Felicano said he condemns the violence at the Capitol, calling the events a “complete disgrace.”

“Those criminals put a stain on all the good that has come from the Trump administration, and I hope each and everyone of them is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Feliciano said.

Though the NDRC attempted to portray Feliciano as a conspiracy theorist, some of the posts the group highlighted seem to be fairly typical of online conservative discourse.

For example, the group flagged a Feliciano tweet in which he said former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was hit with the heaviest campaign finance fine in American history. That $375,000 fine has been widely described by news outlets as one of the largest ever.

During the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, when U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said America didn’t “inherit” racism and slavery but instead “our founders and our government carefully created it,” Feliciano responded with a tweet saying the Atlantic slave trade predated America and began with Portugal. He said Kaine should “take a history class.”

“Explain to me how we own the slave trade,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for the NDRC said Feliciano’s “tone on Twitter alone is disqualifying to serve on the powerful bipartisan redistricting commission.”

“How is Feliciano going to act as a commissioner working in good faith and in the best interest for all Virginians when he shares lies, misogyny and questions America’s involvement with slavery?” said NDRC spokeswoman Molly Mitchell.

Feliciano called himself a “descendant of slaves” and said he “in no way” questioned America’s role in slavery.

“I was only pointing out the fact of where and how slavery originated who started it and how it ended up on American shores,” he said.

Of Gilbert’s 16 nominees to the commission, all but Feliciano were White and non-Hispanic.

Feliciano said he was honored to be picked for the commission and plans to work for “all the people of the Commonwealth both Democrat and Republican.”

“I used intemperate language on social media, like millions of others have,” he said. “I regret my choice of words but it has no bearing on my ability to do the job.”

In his letter of recommendation, Cole called Feliciano “hard worker, a person of integrity, and honor.”

“I am confident he would be impartial and do a great job,” Cole wrote.

Cole’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The commission, which will begin redrawing maps when new U.S. Census date comes in later this year, is scheduled to hold its first meeting by Feb. 1.

Retired judges pick eight citizen members for Virginia redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw January 6, 2021 (Medium)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A panel of retired judges on Wednesday picked the eight Virginia citizens who will serve on the state’s new redistricting commission, finalizing the group that will handle the important task of redrawing the state’s political maps when new U.S. Census data arrives.

The judges spent hours trying to solve the puzzle of winnowing more than 60 finalists down to eight people who, by law, were supposed to represent Virginia’s geographic, racial and gender diversity.

“We’ve got to check a number of boxes here,” said retired Judge Pamela Baskervill, who chaired the five-judge panel assembled to choose the citizen members.

More than 1,200 people applied for the eight seats late last year. But the judges could only pick from four lists of 16 finalists submitted by four legislative leaders in the General Assembly.

The judges picked six men and two women to fill the eight citizen seats on the 16-member commission.

Four of the chosen members are White (three non-Hispanic and one Hispanic), two are Black, one is Asian American and one is multi-racial.

Three of the members are from Northern Virginia and two are from the Richmond area. Southwest Virginia, Southside and Hampton Roads will each have one citizen representative on the commission.

The group includes four self-identified Democrats and four who identified as Republicans.

The selected citizen members are:

Nominees of Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth:

  • James Abrenio, 37, of Fairfax, a trial lawyer.
  • Sean S. Kumar, 41, of Alexandria, a strategic advisor and lawyer.

Nominees of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax:

  • Brandon Christopher Hutchins, 39, of Virginia Beach, a military veteran and health care professional.
  • Greta J. Harris, 60, of Richmond, president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition.

Nominees of Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City:

  • Marvin W. Gilliam Jr., 64, of Bristol, a retired coal mining executive.
  • Richard O. Harrell III, 74, of South Boston, a trucking executive.

Nominees of House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah:

  • Jose A. Feliciano Jr., 52, of Fredericksburg, a military veteran and federal agent with the FCC’s public safety bureau.
  • Mackenzie K. Babichenko, 36, of Mechanicsville, an assistant prosecutor in Hanover County.

(Note: Some applicants were nominated as finalists by multiple legislative leaders, but the judges had to pick two from each leader’s list.)

The other eight seats on the commission will be filled by sitting state legislators.

The commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, will soon get to work preparing to redraw Virginia’s legislative and congressional districts, a process previously handled wholly by the General Assembly. Because of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 Census data, the exact timeline for the commission’s work is unclear. New maps are supposed to be in place in time for House of Delegates elections this November, but Census delays may make it impossible to redraw the districts in time.

Whenever the state receives solid data on population shifts, the commission’s decisions could impact the partisan tilt of the statehouse and the congressional delegation for the next decade.

Critics of the commission proposal warned that it lacked adequate provisions to ensure a diverse group of people would be at the table for the next redistricting process. But diversity seemed to be a top priority for the judges, with their discussion centering more on whether they were achieving the right balance rather than the backgrounds and qualifications of specific applicants.

Comparing notes on which candidates stood out to them, the judges initially narrowed the finalists down to a group of 19. They then realized their shortlist lacked any Hispanic applicants and didn’t include anyone from the Eastern Shore/Northern Neck region. The panel made a point of adding at least one Hispanic applicant (Feliciano) after retired retired Judge Larry B. Kirksey said he was troubled by the lack of Hispanic representation. But several judges said it was nearly impossible to create a perfectly representative commission given their limited options for just eight slots.

“’We can only work with the list of folks that came to us from the members of the General Assembly,” said retired Judge Joanne F. Alper. “We didn’t have access to the whole 1,200.”

Alper said she felt it was important to include at least one member from the Southside and Southwest regions, even though their shortlist only included White men from those areas.

“You need somebody at least that has some knowledge of that region,” she said.

Some progressives had raised alarms that the pool of applicants was disproportionately White and wealthy, pointing to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.

The application process was open to everyone willing to fill out the form and provide three reference letters, but the judges also grappled with strict, General Assembly-imposed limitations on who was eligible to serve.

To prevent cronyism, the legislature passed rules barring political aides, lobbyists, partisan operatives and family members of elected officials from serving on the commission. But those rules also forced the judges to reluctantly strike one applicant whose wife previously worked on Capitol Hill.

Several judges said they were impressed by both the quantity and quality of the applicants interested in serving on the commission.

“I’m just amazed by the diversity, the energy, the brilliance,” said Kirksey.  “Not just brightness. There is brilliance on this list.”

Va. political leaders name 8 legislators who’ll serve on new redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw December 1, 2020 (Medium)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The group of eight Democratic and Republican legislators who will serve on Virginia’s new redistricting commission will be made up of five men and three women, including two senior members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

The legislative members, who will wield significant power over how legislative and congressional districts are redrawn when new U.S. Census data comes in next year, come from districts that touch most regions of the state, ensuring some level of geographic diversity in the process.

Leaders of the General Assembly’s four political caucuses announced their appointees to the commission this week, filling half the seats on a newly created commission voters approved in a referendum last month. Instead of having the full General Assembly draw new political maps itself, the eight legislators on the 16-person commission will work with eight citizen members to draft new maps for the decade ahead. The application window for citizens who want to serve on the commission opened this week and will close on Dec. 28.

The map-drawing process could shape which party holds power in Richmond, which incumbents can safely win re-election and which might face challenges, and how much clout geographic regions will have in the state legislature.

As they work to set up the commission, Republican and Democratic leaders in the two chambers got to pick two appointees each from their own ranks.

Those appointees are:

House Democrats

  • Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax
  • Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond

House Republicans

  • Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham
  • Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland

Senate Democrats

  • Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton
  • Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax

Senate Republicans

  • Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg
  • Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover

Each two-person caucus unit is important because, according to the commission rules, each one could block a map proposal even if the other three groups support it. That system is meant to foster collaboration and bipartisanship, but if the commission fails to approve a plan it would fall to the Supreme Court of Virginia to oversee the creation of maps drawn by appointed experts.

Six of the legislative members supported the commission proposal when it was passed by the General Assembly earlier this year. The two House Democrats did not. Nor did Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who appointed them.

One of the opponents’ primary concerns was that the commission might not be diverse enough.

“A Redistricting Commission that represents the racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity of the commonwealth is necessary to ensure every Virginian has a voice in the redistricting process and in our government,” Filler-Corn said in a statement. “Commissioners will need to be committed to inclusion and dedicated to a fair redistricting process that protects the vote of every Virginian. These are the standards for individuals I am appointing as legislators today and my recommendations for citizen members to the commission moving forward.”

In an interview, Simon, who fought the redistricting amendment hard during the 2020 session and in the run-up to the election, said he expects to “be there to sort of keep an eye on things.”

“I think we want to deliver to voters what they expected,” Simon said. “Which is a fair process and maps that sort of reflect the political makeup of Virginia.”

The Senate’s picks largely reflect seniority. Locke and Barker were major supporters of the redistricting reform push. Locke is chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and Barker was a patron of the constitutional amendment creating the commission.

“These two leaders have the experience, knowledge, and historical context of redistricting and also are keenly aware of the importance of making sure we have diverse representation in our Commissioners,” Sen. Louse Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who made the Democrats’ picks as the president pro tempore of the Senate, said in a news release. “Senators Locke and Barker have been involved in this process for years and I know they will be a great addition to the commission.”

McDougle is the Republican caucus chair, and Newman served as president pro tempore of the Senate before Republicans lost their majority last year.

The picks from House Republicans were somewhat surprising. Neither Adams nor Ransone is a member of the House GOP leadership, and neither are seen as particularly outspoken partisan warriors.

In a news release, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, noted that both Adams and Ransone “supported the creation of the commission throughout.”

“With their combined knowledge and experience, I have no doubt they will help craft what the voters have demanded — fair maps for every Virginian,” Gilbert said.

Virginia General Assembly passes rules for newly approved redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw November 9, 2020 (Short)
Voters cast ballots at Charles M. Johnson Elementary School in Henrico County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With Virginia’s redistricting debate now settled by voters, state lawmakers approved a package of rules Monday for how the new, bipartisan map-drawing commission will work next year.

Democrats’ dispute over the redistricting commission, which almost 66 percent of Virginia voters approved last week, delayed the formal conclusion of the special session that began in August. To settle it, legislative leaders and Gov. Ralph Northam agreed to pass a post-election budget amendment allowing the commission to be set up and begin its work next year.

Democrats in the House of Delegates had opposed putting the language in the budget as the session seemed to be coming to a close last month. They argued voters should decide on the constitutional amendment creating the commission as it stood, without any improvements added legislatively.

On Monday, a few House Democrats gave speeches saying they still feel the commission idea is flawed, but will respect the result.

“The people have spoken in great numbers and they wanted to see changes in how the redistricting process happens in Virginia,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, an outspoken critic of the commission proposal who called it “regrettable that there was so much confusion and misinformation” about the redistricting question on the ballot.

The House voted 99-0 to approve the redistricting language. It also easily cleared the Senate.

Proponents of the change have hailed the commission as a much-needed change to a system that has given elected legislators free rein to draw districts to benefit themselves or their party behind closed doors.

“From the start, this movement has been about putting the voices of citizens above politicians and political parties,” the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021 said in a statement celebrating the commission’s passage.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a 16-person commission with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and seats split between sitting legislators and citizen members. Once new U.S. Census data is received in 2021, the commission will redraw Virginia’s congressional and legislative districts, a process that could determine partisan control in Richmond.

The commission’s members will be appointed in the coming weeks, and the panel has to hold its first meeting before Feb. 1.

The budget language approved Monday lays out who is eligible to serve on the commission and the process it will follow.

Among other things, the language:

  • Bans people who hold partisan offices, political aides, campaign employees, lobbyists and others from being appointed to the citizen seats to the commission. It also bans political insiders’ relatives from serving on the commission.
  • Stipulates that the commission’s makeup should reflect Virginia’s “racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity.”
  • Declares that the commission’s records, including internal communications, are public and subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Bans commission members from discussing redistricting-related matters with any third parties “outside of a public meeting or hearing.”
  • Requires the Supreme Court of Virginia to appoint two experts, or special masters, to draw court-overseen maps if the commission and the General Assembly fail to agree on their own. The special masters would be picked from lists submitted by political leaders from both parties.
  • Requires any Supreme Court judge related to a member of Congress or the General Assembly to recuse themselves from any redistricting decision. Current Justice Teresa M. Chafin is the sister of state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon.
In historic change, Virginia voters approve bipartisan commission to handle political redistricting
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw et al.November 4, 2020 (Medium)
Voters arrive at the Taylor Masonic Lodge in Scottsville, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering.

On Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

Though some votes were still uncounted, FairMapsVA, the anti-gerrymandering group pushing for the amendment with its parent organization OneVirginia2021, declared victory around 12:40 a.m., saying the result came after six years of work.

“Tonight, we celebrate the formation of Virginia’s first citizen-led redistricting commission; and tomorrow, we get back to work to ensure the commission’s work is successful,” the group said in a statement.

The outcome ensures that the next redistricting process — which could determine how much representation Virginia communities have, which political party is likely to hold power in Richmond and which incumbents are or aren’t safe from election challenges — will have at least some direct citizen involvement for the first time ever.

Once a decade, the state uses new U.S. Census data to redraw legislative and congressional maps to ensure each district has roughly the same population. How those districts are drawn can have far-reaching impacts, affecting which party can win a majority of the seats, electoral competitiveness, how much political power minority communities have and which individual politicians get to represent a particular area. So it’s no surprise that changing who draws those maps was a contentious endeavor.

The vote on the redistricting question, coupled with strong Democratic victories in Tuesday’s statewide races, reveals a disconnect between some Democratic leaders and the party’s voters.

Many Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against the commission proposal this year after voting for it in 2019, a reversal they said came after they had more time to consider its flaws. The Democratic Party of Virginia also officially opposed the initiative despite the fact that it was supported by senior Virginia Democrats like U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Had the amendment failed, the Democratic-led General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam would have the final say on new maps.

Fair Districts VA, an advocacy group formed by Democrats opposed to the ballot question, conceded defeat early Wednesday morning, saying it had been “fighting an uphill battle.” The group demanded that more be done to pursue stronger redistricting reform going forward.

“The people who pushed Amendment 1 know of its flaws – and it is now incumbent upon them to seek real solutions to fix those flaws,” Fair Districts said in a news release.

The proposal was supported by national good-government groups as well as the ACLU of Virginia, the League of Women Voters of Virginia and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. But it fell short of what many redistricting reformers envisioned: a fully independent commission that gives incumbent politicians no power whatsoever to draw their own districts.

Because Virginia has no process for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, it’s always been up to state lawmakers to willingly give up their redistricting power. In previous years, the Republican-led House of Delegates routinely blocked redistricting reform efforts. But GOP leaders changed their position in 2019 after federal courts redrew some House districts to correct Republican-led racial gerrymandering, a development that helped put the House GOP majority in jeopardy heading into the 2019 elections.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, argued unsuccessfully in March for an alternative redistricting amendment that was supported by a majority of Democrats in the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Reserving half the seats for legislators was seen as a compromise that still gives General Assembly leaders a hand in redistricting, which can have career-ending consequences for incumbents whose districts change dramatically.

Maps produced by the new commission will go to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. If the commission can’t agree on maps or the General Assembly rejects the commission’s maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia would conduct a court-supervised redistricting process.

Opponents have also argued the commission proposal lacks explicit protections for minority communities. Supporters say the amendment achieves that by referencing the federal Voting Rights Act and specifying that districts will allow “opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”

The insidery arguments about the commission’s particulars seemed to escape many Virginians.

Some voters said they hadn’t heard about the redistricting amendment until they saw it on their ballot Tuesday, drawing disparate conclusions about its potential impact from the one-paragraph description they read in the voting booth.

At a polling place in downtown Richmond, none sounded especially confident in their interpretations.

“It’s so convoluted if you read it from the back of a voter ballot,” said Patrick Ogden, who ultimately decided to vote no because he opposed the idea of stripping the governor of his authority to veto redistricting plans and giving the unelected members of the Supreme Court of Virginia a role in the process. “I believe the governor should have a little more say. At least that’s what I read from it.”

Sasha Atkins, who also voted no, said the explanation on the ballot made her worry the amendment wouldn’t give regular citizens enough of a say in the redistricting process. “We should be representing ourselves,” she said.

Another voter at the same polling place said she voted for the measure, but only because she thought it addressed how local school districts redraw their boundaries.

In Southwest Virginia’s Franklin County, Gary Holden of Ferrum said he supported the commission while voting “straight-ticket Democrat.” He said he saw the commission as preferable to the current system “so long as it’s made up of equal parties.”

In Virginia Beach, 44-year-old schoolteacher Scott Parker said he voted for the redistricting amendment because he wanted to bring more logic to the process.

At the same polling place, Janise Jenkins, a 39-year-old property manager, also said the amendment would be an improvement on the status quo.

“It will be fair, more reasonable,” she said.

The commission was approved just in time to handle the redistricting process scheduled for 2021, but pandemic-related delays with the census data could create severe timing issues. With all 100 seats in the House of Delegates up for election next year, officials will have to rush to get new districts in place in time for late-summer primaries and a shortened general-election cycle.

If the delays make it impossible to draw new districts in time, the House elections could potentially be run using existing district lines. The state could also be left scrambling if there appear to be major problems with the census count conducted in such a chaotic year.

In the short term, officials will get to work setting up the commission and deciding who will serve on it. By Nov. 15, the state Supreme Court is supposed to submit a list of retired judges willing to serve on a selection committee that will pick the citizen members from nominees floated by General Assembly leaders. The commission’s eight legislative members are scheduled to be appointed by Dec. 1.

The commission has to hold its first public meeting by Feb. 1.

First, the General Assembly will reconvene to pass additional rules for how the commission will work. Those rules were being considered for inclusion in the state budget during the recent special session, but the fierce intraparty debate among Democrats over the amendment led lawmakers to keep the budget process open until after the outcome was known.

With the amendment approved by voters, the legislature is set to return next week to finish that work.

Summary

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering.

On November 5th, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

From Virginia Mercury article on Nov. 4, 2020 (see Top News for full article)

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Background

Redistricting in the United States is the process of drawing electoral district boundaries. A congressional act enacted in 1967 requires that representatives be elected from single-member districts, except when a state has a single representative, in which case one state-wide at-large election be held.

Redistricting criteria

From Wikipedia
The Reapportionment Act of 1929 withdrew the size and population requirements for Congressional districts, last stated in the Apportionment Act of 1911. The previous apportionment acts required districts be contiguous, compact, and equally populated.

Each state can set its own standards for Congressional and legislative districts. In addition to equalizing the population of districts and complying with federal requirements, criteria may include attempting to create compact, contiguous districts, trying to keep political units and communities within a single district, and avoiding the drawing of boundaries for purposes of partisan advantage or incumbent protection.

Redistricting may follow other criteria depending on State and local laws:

  1. compactness
  2. contiguity
  3. equal population
  4. preservation of existing political communities
  5. partisan fairness
  6. racial fairness

Gerrymandering

From Wikipedia

Gerrymandering in the United States has been used to increase the power of a political party. The term “gerrymandering” was coined by a review of Massachusetts’s redistricting maps of 1812 set by Governor Elbridge Gerry that was named because one of the districts looked like a salamander.

Gerrymandering, in other words, is the practice of setting boundaries of electoral districts to favor specific political interests within legislative bodies, often resulting in districts with convoluted, winding boundaries rather than compact areas.

In the United States, redistricting takes place in each state about every ten years, after the decennial census. It defines geographical boundaries, with each district within a state being geographically contiguous and having about the same number of state voters. The resulting map affects the elections of the state’s members of the US House of Representatives and the state legislative bodies. Redistricting has always been regarded as a political exercise and in most states, it is controlled by state legislators and governor. When one party controls the state’s legislative bodies and governor’s office, it is in a strong position to gerrymander district boundaries to advantage its side and to disadvantage its political opponents. Since 2010, detailed maps and high-speed computing have facilitated gerrymandering by political parties in the redistricting process, in order to gain control of state legislation and congressional representation, and to potentially maintain that control over several decades even against shifting political changes in a state’s population. Gerrymandering has been sought as unconstitutional in many instances, but it has made many elections more representative[citation needed]. Even as redistricting can advantage the party in control of the process, political science research suggests that its effects are not as large as critics may say. It does not necessarily “advantage incumbents, reduce competitiveness, or exacerbate political polarization.”

Typical gerrymandering cases in the United States take the form of partisan gerrymandering, which is aimed at favor in one political party or weaken another; bipartisan gerrymandering, which is aimed at protecting incumbents by multiple political parties; and racial gerrymandering, which is aimed at weakening the power of minority voters.

Gerrymandering can also recreate districts with the aim of maximizing the number of racial minorities to assist particular nominees, who are minorities themselves. In some other cases that have the same goal of diluting the minority vote, the districts are reconstructed in a way that packs minority voters into a smaller or limited number of districts.

2000-2010
The potential to gerrymander a district map has been aided by advances in computing power and capabilities. Using geographic information system and census data as input, mapmakers can use computers to process through numerous potential map configurations to achieve desired results, including partisan gerrymandering.[Computers can assess voter preferences and use that to “pack” or “crack” votes into districts. Packing votes refers to concentrating voters in one voting district by redrawing congressional boundaries so that those in opposition of the party in charge of redistricting are placed into one larger district, therefore reducing the party’s congressional representation. Cracking refers to diluting the voting power of opposition voters across many districts by redrawing congressional boundaries so that voting minority populations in each district are reduced, therefore lowering the chance of a district-oriented congressional takeover. Both techniques lead to what the Times describes as “wasted votes,” which are votes that do not supply a party with any victory. These can either be a surplus of votes in one district for one party that are above the threshold needed to win, or any vote that has resulted in a loss. A study done by the University of Delaware mentions situations in which an incumbent that is required to live in the district they represent can be “hijacked” or “kidnapped” into a neighboring district due to the redrawing of congressional boundaries, subsequently placing them in districts that are more difficult for them to win in.Partisan gerrymandering oftentimes leads to benefits for a particular political party, or, in some cases, a race.

2010-2020
In the lead-up to the 2010 United States elections, the Republican party initiated a program called REDMAP, the Redistricting Majority Project, which recognized that the party in control of state legislatures would have the ability to set their congressional and legislative district maps based on the pending 2010 United States Census in manner to assure that party’s control over the next ten years. The Republicans took significant gains from the 2010 elections across several states, and by 2011 and 2012, some of the new district maps showed Republican advantage through perceived partisan gerrymandering. This set the stage for several legal challenges from voters and groups in the court system, including several heard at the Supreme Court level.

In 2015, Thomas Hofeller was hired by the Washington Free Beacon to analyze what would happen if political maps were drawn based on the population of U.S. citizens of voting age rather than on the total population. He concluded that doing so “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” Although the study was not published, it was discovered after his death in 2018.[19] Attorney General William P. Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. have refused to cooperate with an investigation into why the Trump administration added a U.S. citizenship question to the 2020 census and specifically whether it seeks to benefit Republicans as suggested by Hofeller’s study.

Several state court rulings found partisan gerrymandering to be impermissible under state constitutions, and several state ballot measures passed in 2018 that require non-partisan commissions for the 2020 redistricting cycle.

 

Congress

Redistricting Bills – 116th Congress

While states are responsible for drawing congressional districts every ten years, Congress has the power under the Constitution’s Elections Clause (Art. I, sec. 4) to set rules governing how states draw districts. Congress has used this power in the past, for example, to mandate that states use single-member districts.

Below are the redistricting and census-related bills that members have filed during the 116th Congress. For information on redistricting and census-related bills filed in state legislatures, please visit our State Redistricting Bill Tracker.

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H.R. 1: Bill to enact various democracy reforms, including requiring states to create fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria include racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interest, and ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

H.R. 4: Bill revising the coverage formula for jurisdictions that must preclear election law changes – including redistricting plans – under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

H.R. 36: Bill expressing sense of Congress that partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts should be banned

H.R. 44: Bill prohibiting states from carrying out mid-decade congressional redistricting

H.R. 124: Bill prohibiting states from carrying out mid-decade congressional redistricting, requiring states to create political appointee commissions for congressional redistricting, and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Criteria partially ranked
  • Requires commission to create a website for public notice and input

H.R. 130: Identical bill to H.R. 124

H.R. 131: Bill requiring certain measures of transparency during congressional redistricting, requiring state redistricting entities to:

  • Create a website for public notice and input
  • Hold at least one public hearing on both the preliminary and final plans
  • Release a report accompanying the final plan explaining the reasons for adoption

H.R. 163: Bill requiring states to create commissions and implement open primaries for federal elections

H.R. 181: Bill limiting the penalty imposed on individuals who refuse to answer questions on the decennial census

H.R. 732: Bill prohibiting the Secretary of Commerce from implementing a design feature or adding any question not tested for at least three years to the decennial census

H.R. 794: Bill directing the Secretary of Commerce to adjust federal census population data to reflect incarcerated persons’ pre-incarceration residential addresses

H.R. 1320: Bill requiring the decennial census to include a citizenship question

H.R. 1612: Bill to enact various democracy reforms, including requiring states to create fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria, including racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interest, and ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

H.R. 1734: Bill prohibiting the inclusion of citizenship, nationality, or immigration status questions on the decennial census

H.R. 1799: Bill revising the coverage formula for determining the jurisdictions that must preclear election law changes – including redistricting plans – under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

H.R. 2057: Bill directing the Attorney General to enter into an agreement with the National Academies to study and recommend best congressional redistricting practices to Congress

H.R. 3572: Bill requiring states to create fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria include racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interest, and a ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

H.R. 3765: Companion bill to S. 1358

H.R. 4000: Bill enacting ranked choice voting and multimember congressional districts, creating fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts, and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria, including racial fairness provision and ban on statewide partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

H.R. 4412: Bill prohibiting the U.S. Census Bureau from including citizenship information in the population data reported to states for legislative redistricting

S. 201: Bill requiring the decennial census to count the total number of people in each state and prohibiting the addition of citizenship or immigration status questions

S. 358: Companion bill to H.R. 732

S. 561: Companion bill to H.R. 4

S. 949: Bill to enact various democracy reforms, including requiring states to create fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria, including racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interest, and ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

S. 1358: Bill requiring the decennial census to include a citizenship question

S. 1972: Bill establishing redistricting criteria

  • Congressional districts only
  • Unranked criteria, including racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interests, and ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Provides for the right of any eligible voter in a state to contest a gerrymandered map

S.2068: Bill prohibiting the Secretary of Commerce from including citizenship information in the population data reported to states for legislative redistricting

S.2233: Bill nullifying the effect of Executive Order 13880 (“Collecting Information About Citizenship Status in Connection With the Decennial Census”)

S. 2226: Bill requiring states to create fifteen-member independent commissions to draw congressional districts and establishing redistricting criteria

  • Ranked criteria include racial fairness provision, protection for communities of interest, and a ban on partisan gerrymandering
  • Requires at least three public hearings before and after a plan is drafted; requires the commission to submit a report that includes responses to public comment alongside the final plan

 

Fair Representation Act

Congressman Don Beyer has led the US House efforts to enact the Fair Representation Act.

Below is a summary of these efforts from Don Beyer’s government website.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) and a group of House Democrats today introduced the Fair Representation Act, an election reform bill to change the way U.S. Representatives are elected. The bill, which includes a provision requiring that all Congressional districts be drawn by independent commissions to prevent gerrymandering, came soon after the Supreme Court’s decision in Rucho v. Common Cause, which upheld political gerrymandering.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold political gerrymandering is the latest in a series of terrible setbacks for our democracy, and our legislation would help put the country back on the right track,” said Rep. Beyer. “At a time when Americans have waning faith in institutions and political leadership, the Fair Representation Act would help restore the trust which so many have lost in our political system. This bill would ensure that every voter has their voice represented in Congress, and make real progress towards bipartisan focus on getting results for the American people.”

Beyer was joined in introducing the bill by Representatives Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Jim Cooper (D-TN), and Jim McGovern (D-MA).

“American democracy needs a new engine, which is embodied in this legislation,“ said Rep. Raskin. “I’m proud to cosponsor the Fair Representation Act to make our elections more positive and our government more representative. Let’s open up American politics to new voices, new choices and representation for all.”

“Reforming Congress will empower citizens to reclaim our democracy,” said Rep. Khanna. “The Fair Representation Act would help increase representation for communities left out of our political system and open up the two-party system to much-needed choice for voters. I thank Representative Beyer for his courage in reintroducing such a bold solution to reform American elections.”

The Fair Representation Act would move US House elections into multi-member districts drawn by independent redistricting commissions and elected through ranked choice voting. Taken together, these three measures would incentivize congressional candidates to appeal to a broader range of voters.

“Partisan politics and gerrymandering have taken over our elections and helped create the gridlock we’re seeing in Congress,” Rep. Cooper said. “This bill will allow the voices of more Americans to be heard.”

“Our democracy is in serious jeopardy. Right now, we have a system in many states where our representatives are picking the people who vote for them instead of the other way around. If that weren’t bad enough, last month the Supreme Court further undermined faith in our government by upholding this awful practice,” said Rep. McGovern. “I’m proud to join with Representative Beyer to introduce this critical bill, and I’m grateful for his leadership to ensure that every voice is heard and every vote matters.”

The Fair Representation Act was hailed by nonpartisan organizations FairVote, RepresentWomen, and Feminist Majority Foundation.

“Congress must fix partisan gerrymandering, yet can’t stop with independent commissions. We must replace winner-take-all elections with the Fair Representation Act to represent the millions of voters who, defying partisan stereotypes, could bridge our seemingly unbridgeable political divides. Ensuring every voter matters in every election is the best way to reverse what has become quite literally a death spiral for our constitutional order,” said Rob Richie, President and CEO of FairVote.

“Despite gains for women in the 2018 midterm elections, women remain under-represented at every level of government. I support the Fair Representation Act because it will help to elect significantly more women to Congress by opening up the political process so that more women can run and win,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

“No single reform would create more opportunities for women and people of color from across the spectrum to compete in fair elections,” said Cynthia Richie Terrell, founder of RepresentWomen. “It is central to our vision of how we achieve parity for women in congressional elections.”

Full text of the Fair Representation Act may be found here, and more resources, including factsheets and FAQ’s, are available from FairVote here.

 

Redistricting Commission

From OneVirginia2021 Foundation webpage

On November 3, 2020, Virginia voters approved an amendment to the state constitution, which will create the first Virginia Redistricting Commission.
See the full text of the amendment here.

The General Assembly also passed enabling legislation in the state budget that elaborates on how the commission will operate, who will be eligible to serve, the diversity requirements throughout the process, and the rules by which the Supreme Court of Virginia must abide should they end up needing to establish the maps.
See the full text of the budget language here.

To view the full timeline for the 2021 redistricting process, click here.

To visit the new Virginia Redistricting website to learn more and see updated information and interactive maps, click here.

If you have further questions about the process or the eligibility requirements, email varedist@dls.virginia.gov.

The members of the first Virginia Redistricting Commission are:

Del. Les Adams (R, Chatham)
James Abrenio (D, Fairfax)
Mackenzie K. Babichenko (R, Mechanicsville)
Sen. George Barker (D, Fairfax)
Jose A. Feliciano, Jr. (R, Fredericksburg)
Marvin W. Gilliam (R, Bristol)
Richard O. Harrell, III (R, South Boston)
Greta J. Harris (D, Richmond)
Brandon Hutchins (D, Virginia Beach)
Sean S. Kumar (D, Alexandria)
Sen. Mamie Locke (D, Hampton)
Sen. Ryan McDougle (R, Mechanicsville)
Del. Delores McQuinn (D, Richmond)
Sen. Steve Newman (R, Forest)
Del. Margaret Ransone (R, Kinsale)
Del. Marcus Simon (D, Falls Church)

HOW WERE THE COMMISSIONERS CHOSEN?

Districts will be drawn by a commission composed of 8 citizens and 8 legislators, with one of the citizens serving as the Chair. The citizen selection process – which was recently completed – was politically balanced, and the final determination of who serves was made by a panel of five retired circuit court judges (see below.)

In making its selections, the selection committee was required to give consideration to the racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity of the Commonwealth.

See VPAP’s visual guide to the full process here.

WHO IS ON THE SELECTION COMMITTEE?

The judges chosen by legislative leaders from both parties to be on the Redistricting Selection Committee are:
The Hon. Pamela Baskervill (Chair – Petersburg)
The Hon. Joanne F. Alper (Arlington)
The Hon. William C. Andrews, III (Williamsburg)
The Hon. Larry B. Kirksey (Bristol)
The Hon. David Pugh (Newport News)

Click here for the video of their first public meeting.

Community Mapping

From Monday Jan. 11, 2021 OneVirginia2021 email

Now that the Virginia Redistricting Commission members have been selected, we are looking ahead at the public input part of the process. The new redistricting laws say that those drawing the maps must consider communities of interest in their decisions, which begs the question, how do they know what those communities are?

The short answer is: the public has to tell them! Our focus going forward is to empower citizens to provide information about their communities to the Commission in a clear and usable way. The primary tool we have to offer is community mapping programs. These websites (Districtr, created by Tufts University, and Representable, created by Princeton University) do not require the user to create an account or download anything – they simply allow any member of the public to submit a map that shows a community that should be kept together in the new district maps.

You probably have lots of questions about this, and the best way to get answers is to attend the trainings this week! See our events page for a full listing of this week’s Representable and Districtr training sessions hosted by the League of Women Voters of Virginia, as well as the sign up links.

We’re looking forward to this next phase of the process and the historic opportunity for Virginians to make their voices heard in the redistricting process.

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