Editorial: Redistricting hopes dashed

·3 min read

The high expectations which greeted the launch of the Virginia Redistricting Commission have given way to the cold reality that removing political influence from an inherently political process will be more difficult than was hoped.

The commission splintered along party lines in recent weeks, failing to reach agreement on legislative districts. Unless something dramatically changes in the waning hours, it will miss Monday’s deadline to produce a new congressional map as well.

This is a deeply discouraging setback, yes, but not an indictment of redistricting reform. Rather, it makes sense for Virginians to hold tightly to what worked and consider implementing further changes to the process in order to facilitate compromise, involve experts and produce the type of maps that better serve the commonwealth.

Virginia voters overwhelmingly endorsed the creation of an independent redistricting commission when they went to the polls last year, believing it would enable the commonwealth to shine a light on deliberations and eliminate the type of partisan shenanigans that have plagued that crucial process over the years.

On the first point, the commission succeeded spectacularly. Virginians could tune into meetings, attend public hearings and register their comments as the work was on-going. The transparency of these deliberations was unlike any in the state’s history, and that is to be commended.

But in terms of the actual work, the commission did not deliver. Members fractured from the start and could not even agree to hire nonpartisan lawyers to help guide their work. They instead hired two firms, one Republican and one Democratic, foreshadowing the partisan differences to come — and in sharp contrast to the reform voters embraced at the polls.

The 16-member commission includes eight citizens and eight lawmakers, split evenly between the two major parties and neither side was willing to give an inch to achieve it. Involving legislators rather than redistricting experts, and citizens with partisan affiliation rather than independents, set the stage for this.

It would be false to say nobody predicted this outcome. Some members of the Legislative Black Caucus opposed the constitutional amendment when it was before the General Assembly, expressing worry that the commission wouldn’t protect minority voters and arguing that a commission with lawmakers as members wasn’t “independent” at all.

They feared that adopting Amendment One would ultimately hand responsibility to the Virginia Supreme Court, which has the authority to draw maps if the commission failed to reach agreement. Those concerns were prescient; that’s where the process is now headed.

To be fair to the commission, implementing an overhaul of the redistricting process would have been challenging without the pandemic-related delays of data from U.S. Census Bureau needed to draw new districts. The tight timeline did them no favors.

But they also failed in their task. They couldn’t compromise. They couldn’t find common ground. And it seemed that some members were perfectly fine handing off the baton to the state Supreme Court rather than pushing ahead with the determination and good faith needed.

So that leaves Virginia to ask the question if, in this hyperpartisan age, is it even possible to implement this sort of well-intentioned, good-government reform? But we have to believe it can work.

Virginia isn’t the only state watching its attempt at independent redistricting collapse under the weight of partisan bickering. According to a recent Politico article, about a dozen states have adopted reform measures and introduced commissions in one form or another, but none has achieved the success that proponents envisioned.

What was hoped to be a process that avoided the years-long legal battles of past efforts, allowed for more citizen involvement and would produce competitive district maps that protected minority rights and kept communities intact can check only one of those boxes.

The improvements in transparency, however, are worth protecting. One setback shouldn’t cause Virginia to sour on reform, not when changes can be made to make the body more independent, involve more experts and academics, and to provide better direction to those drawing the lines.

Virginia expected better. It deserved better. Now it must commit itself to making this work.

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