By Susan Laume:
A large group of Northern Virginians interested in redistricting reform and several of their legislators attended a League of Women Voters (LWV) forum on the topic on Sunday at Sherwood Community Center in Fairfax.
Virginia Del. Mark Sickles (District 43), a member of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, spoke about the Constitutional Amendment (SJ 306) sponsored by Virginia Sen. George Barker (District 39), which passed the General Assembly in the 2019 session. That compromise bill provides for a 16-member commission to develop the redistricting plan with 8 legislators (4 senators, 4 delegates; 2 of each from the two major parties); and 8 citizens (selected by a panel of 5 retired Circuit Court judges from lists submitted by each major party). Under this commission, 6 of the 8 legislators, and 6 of the citizens must agree to the plan. If there is not sufficient agreement, then the districts are established by the Virginia Supreme Court.
Sickles indicated he will introduce a “criteria” bill for the upcoming session which will provide boundaries for any Supreme Court action. “The biggest thing is that we have to comply with the Voting Rights Act,” Sickles said. He referenced one of two areas in which the federal Supreme Court has intervened in redistricting: for Voting Rights Act compliance and to assure “one-person/one-vote.” The courts have not prohibited political bias in redistricting. Other criteria in the enabling bill are likely to include protection of “communities of interest,” compact contiguous areas and containing about the same number of voters.
One dissenting voice on the amendment’s process was Del. Mark Levine’s (District-45), who cautioned that disagreement of only two party-backed legislators could send the commission’s proposal to the Virginia Supreme Court. He feared that Supreme Court members, chosen by a General Assembly which was elected by gerrymandered districts, wouldn’t be non-partisan. (Gerrymandering is the practice of setting electoral district boundaries to favor specific political interests in legislatures, often resulting in districts with convoluted, winding boundaries. The term was coined to refer to Massachusetts’s Governor Elbridge Gerry’s 1812 redistricting map, which was said to resemble a mythical salamander.)
Levine sees a better process in one that removes politicians from the commission and relies instead on sophisticated computer models. Levine and others unhappy with the current amendment language have the difficult choice of resetting the timeline and foregoing reform for this decade.
The constitutional amendment passed in 2019 must pass again in 2020 with absolutely no changes. Once having passed the General Assembly twice, it will be placed on the November 3, 2020, ballot for approval by Virginia voters. If the Redistricting Amendment is passed by voters, the method outlined will be used to establish district boundaries using data collected in the 2020 census.
Other Virginia legislators who spoke at the LWV forum included, Sen. Dave Marsden (District 37) and Delegates Marcus Simon (District 53rd), Mark Keam (District 35), Karrie Delaney (District 67), Ken Plum (District 36), Ibraheem Samirah (District 86), Kaye Kory (District 38), and Rip Sullivan Jr. (District 48).
States go through a process of resetting electoral districts, or “redistricting” each decade to incorporate population data from the federally mandated census. Majority legislatures in both political parties have sought to gain political advantage each decade by helping or hindering a particular demographic group, such as by politics, class, race, or religion; by diluting the opposition’s power; by concentrating voting power; or by creating homogeneous districts so that the minority party never gains a majority.
The League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group which has made redistricting reform their first advocacy priority for 40 years.
Interest in redistricting reform has gained considerable traction with citizens in recent years as seen through the rise of advocacy groups such as One Virginia 2021, which also participated in the event. The group was formed in 2003 and is seen as being instrumental in grass root advocacy on redistricting.
Top Photo: Virginia Del. Mark Sickles (District 43) speaks at LWVs redistricting forum. / Photo by Susan Laume.
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