The Challenges of Partisanship in Redistricting - Virginia’s Experiment in a Hybrid Redistricting Commission
Written by William Rice, Research Assistant, SALPAL
Following the 2020 census, states around the nation are undertaking redistricting, a decennial process. Party control of both Congress and state legislatures hangs in the balance. One of the most difficult issues that exists in the redistricting process is how to prevent political gerrymandering. After its 2019 decision in Rucho v. Common Cause, hopes for guidance on this issue from the US Supreme Court have been dashed, and in this hyper-partisan age, the issue grows ever more salient. Various states have dealt with this challenge differently. Some states utilize a commission composed of legislators, with a bipartisan balance in membership and other rules meant to prevent one political party from dominating the process. Other states utilize an independent commission of citizens, with various rules in place to prevent those affiliated with one political party from dominating the process.
After the passage of a new constitutional amendment in November, Virginia is now experimenting with the nation’s only hybrid redistricting commission, which is composed of eight state legislators and eight non-legislator citizens. Both the legislators and citizens on the commission are divided evenly between those who identify with the two major political parties in Virginia: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
During the commission’s first meeting in January, some of the challenges in shaping a truly bipartisan process and in balancing control between legislators and citizens became apparent. Early on, the citizen commission members expressed a need for more training and information about the redistricting process and their role in the process. At the same time, significant sections of the meetings were led, or as some argued dominated, by the legislative members who were more informed on the redistricting process.
At one point, legislative member Delegate Marcus Simon (D-53rd District), a critic of the constitutional amendment which established the commission, interjected saying “I thought this was supposed to be a citizen-led commission, but I’m hearing a lot of leading being done by the senators.” Such a dynamic between legislators and citizens on the commission during the first meeting of this novel hybrid commission is to be expected, however, as legislators generally have more exposure and knowledge to this process than your average citizen.
Perhaps it may be more helpful in future years to include more mandatory extensive training of commission members on the redistricting process prior to the first meeting in a redistricting year. And future hybrid commissions may consider giving the citizen members more power relative to the legislative members (e.g., allowing citizen members voting status while legislative members only operate as ex officio members).
Whether this dynamic between legislators and citizens continues into subsequent meetings remains to be seen. And if it does remain, opponents of this commission structure may feel vindicated in that criticism.
At the same time, there was progress made in electing formal bipartisan citizen leadership within the commission, as the members selected two citizens, Greta Harris, a Democrat, and Mackenzie Babichenko, a Republican, to serve as co-chairs of the commission. As a part of this co-chair structure, Harris and Babichenko will alternate leading the commission meetings. Some were quick to point out, however, that the language of the redistricting commission amendment does not appear to allow for a co-chair structure, with the plain language reading that during its first public meeting the committee members “shall select a chairman from its membership.” Constitutional issues aside, this co-chair structure may provide a necessary benefit in both facilitating bipartisan cooperation as well as establishing a stronger citizen voice within the commission in contrast to the more experienced legislator members.
Another issue that arose even before the commission’s first meeting was the inclusion of a citizen member, Jose A. Feliciano, Jr., who has tweeted conspiracy theories about election fraud and derogatory comments about female public figures. In response, Virginia Democrats called for Feliciano, a Republican chosen by House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-15th District), to be removed from the commission. Yet as the commission’s enabling legislation currently stands, there is no removal process that exists for commission members. In order to address this issue, Delegate Vivian Watts (D-39th District) introduced a bill to add a removal process to the commission’s enabling legislation While amending legislation has been introduced, it remains to be seen whether the commission members will actually exercise this power in regards to Feliciano or any future members.
It is too early to tell whether Virginia’s experiment in hybrid commission will succeed. There are certainly a number of challenges that manifested during this first meeting, and some of the criticisms of the amendment’s structure and text may be starting to take root. However, the public nature of these commission meetings, including the role of public comment during the meetings and subsequent public commentary in the press, social media, and in communities across Virginia, provides hope that this commission can follow through in achieving a bipartisan redistricting process that takes real cognizance of issues of racial equity, regional diversity, and socio-economic representation in the district drawing process.