Redistricting reform bills die in House subcommittee

Virginia's House districts. Image via Virginia Division of Legislative Services Virginia’s House districts. Image via Virginia Division of Legislative Services

A handful of bills to reform gerrymandering died February 12 in a seven-person House of Delegates subcommittee by voice vote. Delegate Steve Landes (R-25th) was one of those voting to kill the bills. “Our districts are not gerrymandered,” he said. “They’re approved by the Department of Justice.”

The state constitution makes legislators responsible for drawing legislative and congressional lines,  said Landes. “My concern with the proposals we’ve seen is that they cede that responsibility to an unelected group.”

Another concern for Landes is that the bills call for nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions to draw the lines, and he just doesn’t think that’s possible. “It’s a laudable goal, but not realistic,” he said.

Brian Wheelock with OneVirginia21, a bipartisan group of prominent Virginians calling for fair redistricting, said a commission “would be less partisan than the General Assembly. It removes the conflict of interest from legislators drawing their own voter maps.” And while legislators “pat themselves on the back for ethics reform,” said Wheelock, gerrymandering is the most glaring ethics issue.

Two bills that passed the Senate survive in the House subcommittee. SJ284, carried by Republican Senator Jill Vogel and Democratic Senator Louise Lucas, is a constitutional amendment to establish a seven-member Virginia Redistricting Commission. Another Republican bill, SB840 doesn’t call for a commission, but provides guidelines for redistricting, such as compactness, contiguity and communities of interest, while prohibiting the use of political data to draw the lines. That, said Wheelock, would address Landes’ concern about an unelected group drawing the districts.

Of the surviving bills, Wheelock is not optimistic. “I have no illusions about their fate,” he said.

Meanwhile, a bill carried by Senator Bryce Reeves (R-17th) that moves nearly 11,000 Albemarle voters into new districts, which critics say will be more partisan, sails out of the same House Privileges and Elections committee and is poised to pass this week.