Opinion: Commentary: We Need a Better Redistricting Amendment

Along with eliminating the Electoral College and reversing corporate contributions green-lighted by the Citizens United case, I consider the drawing of elected officials’ district lines to be one of the most significant, fundamental problems in American Democracy today.

Question #1 on Virginia’s Nov. 3 ballot is a proposed amendment to Virginia’s Constitution to create a decennial commission to establish districts for elected officials of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates in 2021 and into the future. Our current system is flawed, but the proposed amendment is not the correct solution.

The Redistricting Proposal

Here is how the commission would work. The U. S. Constitution and Constitution of Virginia requires the state legislature to redraw congressional districts and state legislative districts after each census. The amendment would create the Virginia Redistricting Commission (VRC). The VRC would have 16 members - eight state legislators and eight citizens. The legislators would be equally split between the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates and further equally split between the majority and minority parties so that no party would have a majority. The citizen members would be chosen by a panel of five retired Circuit Court judges from lists submitted by the majority and minority caucuses in each chamber of the legislature.

The amendment requires --

  • The Virginia Redistricting Commission to submit plans to the General Assembly within 45 days after receiving U.S. census data or July 1 of the year following a census, whichever is later;

  • Approval by six of eight legislative members, including three of four members of each body and six of eight citizen members;

  • A majority vote of the General Assembly without amendment; and

  • The Governor’s signature.

If no plan receives a majority vote within certain timeframes, the districts would be drawn by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

A Flawed Proposal

While I voted for this proposal in 2019 to keep the conversation going to 2020, upon further study, I have concluded it is not the correct approach and was one of two Senators to vote “no.” First, it is a bipartisan commission. It is not nonpartisan. Legislators would still be heavily involved in drawing their own districts. Citizen appointees would be chosen from lists likely created by legislators (that is still being negotiated). While one party could not steamroll the other, the language would force commission deal-making to preserve the electability of members unless the citizen members (probably picked by legislators) refuse to agree.

My biggest concern is that the criteria for actually drawing the districts are not set forth in the proposed Constitutional amendment, so it can be changed by the state legislature because the criteria are in state law, a law that we adopted in the last session. Every Republican member of the General Assembly opposed it and when the legislature’s composition inevitably changes, the legislature will pass a bill creating new criteria that could require districts to be drawn to favor other partisan factors and effectively mandate a partisan gerrymander.

A Better Approach

Ideally, I believe apolitical redistricting can be more impartially done by computers using an agreed-upon algorithm that respects minority rights consistent with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, uses mathematical compactness and contiguity measures, and minimizes “wasted votes” or what is called the “voter efficiency gap,” a well-recognized mathematical model that objectively measures whether districts are drawn in a way that reflects the actual partisan make-up of the state. A slight deviation (e.g., 2 percent) could be authorized by a nonpartisan group to adjust lines to account for communities of interest, commuting patterns and other relevant factors. Such a process would come closer to removing political and human influences from the process.

Laws can be changed by the legislature whenever the legislature chooses. The process to change the state Constitution takes more time and involves multiple steps. Provisions of the Constitution have long standing effects and can remain there for generations. It is important that when we put language in our constitution that it be either written broadly enough to provide flexibility or if it is specific, it must be finely targeted and precise. The proposed constitutional amendment is neither. I will vote against it.

Please email me at scott@scottsurovell.org if you have any feedback.

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