House kills redistricting reform

Published 8:54 pm Tuesday, February 14, 2017

By Megan Schiffres

Capital News Service

Republicans on a House subcommittee killed three redistricting reform bills Tuesday that advocates had hoped would curtail gerrymandering in Virginia.

Email newsletter signup

At a 7 a.m. meeting, the Elections Subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee voted 5-2 that each proposal be “passed by indefinitely,” effectively ensuring that the issue is dead for the legislative session.

More than 50 supporters of OneVirginia2021, which advocates for nonpartisan redistricting, attended the subcommittee’s meeting. The crowd murmured its displeasure when the panel voted against the measures, and one woman shouted “Shameful!”

Democrats also were disappointed.

“There ought to be a full House vote on these bills,” said House Minority Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville. “They’re so important they shouldn’t be bottled up in a small subcommittee with a very small number of people making big decisions on big issues.”

The House Elections Subcommittee considered three measures that had passed the Senate with Republican support last week:

  • SJ 290, a constitutional amendment that states, “No electoral district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring any political party, incumbent legislator or member of Congress, or other individual or entity.” It was sponsored by Sens. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester, and Janet Howell, D-Reston.
  • SJ 231, a constitutional amendment that would create an independent commission to redraw legislative and congressional districts after each census. It was sponsored by a group of Republicans and Democrats.
  • SB 846, a bill requiring Virginia to use an independent commission if a court declares a legislative or congressional district unlawful or unconstitutional. It was sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth.

The five Republicans on the Elections Subcommittee voted to kill the proposals. They are Delegates Les Adams of Pittsylvania, Mark Cole of Spotsylvania, Buddy Fowler of Hanover, Chris Jones of Suffolk and Margaret Ransone of Westmoreland.

The two Democrats on the subcommittee — Delegates Mark Sickles of Fairfax and Luke Torian of Prince William — voted to keep the redistricting bills alive.

Howell urged the subcommittee to support the amendment that she introduced with her Republican colleague, Vogel.

“Gerrymandering is undercutting our representative form of government. It’s making the public feel disenfranchised, and it’s polarizing unnecessarily our political system,” Howell said. “We will keep coming back until you see the wisdom in our amendment.”

Cole, who chairs the Elections Subcommittee, questioned whether the amendment would be necessary until 2021, the next time the General Assembly is scheduled to redraw legislative and congressional districts.

Cole said the General Assembly should delay considering the issue, because pending court cases could change the redistricting laws before the amendment is enacted.

District lines in Virginia are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census. The Virginia Constitution requires that districts be composed of “contiguous and compact territory” and fairly represent the population. Critics of the system have argued that the process is used for political gain and has been corrupted by partisanship.

SJ 231 — proposed by Republican Sens. Emmett Hanger of Augusta and Glen Sturtevant of Chesterfield and Democratic Sens. Creigh Deeds of Bath and Lynwood Lewis of Accomack — attempted to take the power to draw districts away from politicians and give it to an independent, bipartisan commission.

The seven-member commission would have been composed of two nominees from Republican leaders, two nominees from Democratic leaders, the auditor of public accounts, the state inspector general and the executive director of the Virginia State Bar.

Republicans on the Elections Subcommittee criticized the proposed amendment, saying it would not solve the problem of partisanship in redistricting, because most members of the commission would be appointed by party leaders.

Sickles, who supported SJ 231 and the other redistricting proposals, complained of his Republican colleagues: “I think the majority opinion up here is that you can’t take the politics out of this.”

Although he voted to kill all three of the redistricting reform measures before the subcommittee, Fowler said he won’t support political gerrymandering in 2021.

“If I am around, my commitment is to come up with a redistricting bill that is not gerrymandered with respect to political party as the primary goal,” Fowler said.

Eight redistricting reform bills introduced by House members died earlier in the session. They never made it out of committee.

Tuesday morning’s actions by the House Elections Subcommittee prompted sharp comments in the afternoon on the House floor.

Jones, one of the Elections Subcommittee members who voted to kill the redistricting bills, defended the existing process for drawing political lines.

“We will do like we did in 2010 and have a series of public hearings across the commonwealth,” he said, adding that legislators “will solicit input from citizens” and use that input in revising districts.

CNS reporter Tyler Woodall contributed to this report.