WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WVEC) — Ahead of the 2019 legislative session, a Virginia advocacy group is pushing a constitutional amendment that would strip lawmakers of the power to redraw district lines and give that responsibility to a vetted citizen committee.
The proposal, created by One Virginia 2021, has drawn bipartisan support in the state Senate but needs full legislative approval before it can be voted on in the 2020 election.
Rebecca Green, a law professor at William and Mary University, said Virginians are tired of gerrymandering and the problematic process of lawmakers redistricting their own district lines.
"There's huge momentum in the country around the issue of redistricting, and people have started to wake up to the fact that legislators drawing lines for themselves is an inherent conflict of interest," Green said.
Green pointed out that some of the Virginia district lines that were redrawn in 2011 are still under litigation today. She said Democrats executed egregious gerrymanders in the 1990s and 2000s, while Republicans did the same in 2010, showing the issue is a bipartisan problem.
"It has reduced competition and reduced the power of people's votes," she said.
In recent years, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Utah voters have elected to take the power of redistricting away from legislators and give it to citizen committees.
However, Virginia's process is more complicated.
State lawmakers would need to pass the constitutional amendment in both the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions before voters could approve the change in a ballot referendum in November 2020.
"If it was just a question of a popular referendum on this process I think we would be on easy street, but it's harder in Virginia since we have to get it through the legislature a couple of times," Green said.
So, advocates associated with One Virginia 2021 need to convince lawmakers to cede their own power to the citizens.
Two state senators have already signed on to sponsor the constitutional amendment, including Mamie Locke, D-Hampton. Locke said she's tired of the current process valuing the retention of political power over the voice of voters.
"Citizens, the people who vote for us to be legislators, need to have the ultimate say in how these lines are drawn," Locke said. "I would hope that my colleagues would see that this would be the way to go."
Members of One Virginia 2021 are relying on Locke and others to convince other members of the state legislature to vote for the constitutional amendment in the 2019 legislative session in order to keep the dream of changing the redistricting process by 2021 alive.
The new process of creating a citizen committee to draw district lines includes multiple checks and balances.
The Speaker and Minority Leader of the House and the Majority and Minority Leader of the Senate would each select one retired Virginia Circuit Court judge to make up the selection committee. Those four judges would select one additional judge to serve on the five-person selection committee.
Then, the judges would create an application process and solicit citizens to serve on the redistricting commission from all over the state. The judges would select 22 candidates for consideration: 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 12 Independents.
Each General Assembly leader would then have the opportunity to remove 3 candidates from the list - one from the opposing party and two independents. This cuts the committee to 10 members. Green said this step would provide additional oversight to remove partisan bias.
Lastly, a new map of districts would be required to receive 7 of the 10 commissioners' votes to be adopted, and at least one Democrat and one Republican would need to vote for each map change. This would ideally eliminate the possibility of a political party's three members teaming up with the four independents to pass a change without the support of the other political party.
Green said the entire process would be more balanced, transparent and fair. She said committee meetings and data would be open to the public.
"Virginians are tired of it and they just want change," she said.
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