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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

February 27, 2018

Heading into the 2018 Midterms, A Look at Redistricting in Virginia

State / Midterm / Elections

Wason Center graphic showing support and opposition for redistricting methods. There is strong support for both an advisory commission (65 percent) and amending the state constitution to create a non-partisan commission (61 percent).

After the release of the 2010 Census, Virginia was granted 11 congressional districts where the ideal district population to representative ratio was approximately 730,703 constituents per representative. The population in Virginia in 2010 was 8.025 million residents; however, the population has risen about 5.1% to 8.4 million residents as of July 2016. Needless to say, the citizens of Virginia are wondering how the constant rise in population the number of districts allocated among the state and how the districts will be drawn. Citizens and legislators of Virginia and the United States have wavered on how the redistricting process should be handled. In a survey conducted in February 2017, the Wason Center assessed how salient the redistricting issue is among Virginia voters as well as how they felt about options for reforming the process.

A major issue in relation to redistricting is the process of gerrymandering. Virginia is ranked as one of the most gerrymandered states, both at the state and federal level, because of the lack of “compactness and contiguity” of the districts drawn. According to FiveThirtyEight, there are currently only 2 competitive districts whereas the other 9 are usually non-competitive due to the size of the partisan advantage. This is known as the efficiency gap, which measures the number of “wasted” votes by advancing one party’s chances of a successful election. In Virginia, the “efficiency gap” is currently at 14% in favor of the GOP and although Democrats have won the majority of votes in the last 5 statewide races, they only hold 4 of the state’s 11 congressional districts. In fact, for most of the decade since the 2010 districts were put in place, Democrats only held 3 of the 11 seats. They picked up a 4th seat after a court-mandated redrawing of the 3rd congressional district, which the court ruled presented a “racial gerrymander” in which African American voters had been intentionally sequestered in the 3rd to give Republicans advantages in the surrounding districts.

The districts are currently drawn where the state is broken up into vertical districts whereas if the state were drawn to cater to highly competitive elections, the state districts would be drawn more horizontally.

The state could also be drawn to cater to majority-minority districts, make districts more compact, and even to match partisan breakdown of seats in the electorate. The question remains on how each district should be drawn; many citizens and legislators have differing opinions on how the state should be drawn in relation to fair elections. Legislative districts are drawn by the parties that hold the majority. In 2010, the Republicans had a 66-44 majority over the Democratic Party which was reflected in the districts drawn. However, the Democratic Party won over 15 new seats in the 2017 gubernatorial election leaving a 50-49 GOP majority.

Court cases regarding redistricting and gerrymandering have been popular on the Supreme Court docket in recent years. At the state level, Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections was decided on March 1, 2017. The Supreme Court affirmed that the GOP-led legislature in Virginia drew districts to benefit their own candidates and the Republican Party. Furthermore, the court questioned whether or not the districts showed racial bias against African American citizens by diluting their votes and bleaching surrounding areas in certain districts. When it comes to racial gerrymandering, the courts generally apply strict scrutiny; however, the justices did not explicitly address the issue in the decision of Bethune Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections. Instead, the justices simply stated that when the lower court affirmed the constitutionality of the districts, they did not apply the correct level of scrutiny nor standards of gerrymandering. Similar issues arose when the federal congressional districts were challenged in Wittman v. Personhuballah (2016). Here too the Court ruled that in the pursuit of their partisan gerrymander, Republicans had created a racial gerrymander in the 3rd congressional district. Following the decision of this case, the Virginian maps were re-drawn and African-American politician, Donald McEachin (D-Henrico County), was elected to represent Virginia’s 4th district. In March 2018, the Supreme Court will hear Benisek v. Lamonea case that deals with partisan gerrymandering and how cities and counties are sometimes split into two different districts. The plaintiffs of this case are arguing that gerrymandering violates the First Amendment’s protection of political association. Brian Cannon with Virginia 2021, a redistricting reform group, stated that recent court rulings in Pennsylvania and North Carolina display a possibility that the courts will respond more strictly to redistricting and gerrymandering cases, a topic that the courts are usually reluctant to take a stance on due to political favoritism. “We’ll see what the governor does, we’ll see what the courts do, we’ll see how much further the House Republicans are willing to go – but the conversation is great,” Cannon said in response to the possibility of redistricting reform following the 2020 Census release.

In a recent Wason Center survey, respondents were asked about their opinions regarding the redistricting process. The first question respondents were asked measured how familiar they are with the current redistricting process in Virginia.

Wason Center survey regarding the familiarity of redistricting among voters.  In 2015, 47 percent of voters were familiar with the issue; by 2018, that number had risen to 55 percent.

55% of respondents reported that they are currently familiar with the redistricting process following the Census every 10 years. In January of 2015, only 47% reported that they were familiar with the process, which increased to 52% in January of 2016. Virginians are becoming more and more familiar with the overall process of redistricting most likely due to increased national and state media coverage of the issue as well as the 2016 and 2017 election cycles and the attention that the Presidential and Virginia gubernatorial elections received in relation to redistricting.

Additionally, the Wason Center asked respondents about their opinions regarding possible changes in the redistricting process for the upcoming release of the Census. 29% of respondents support leaving the redistricting process as it currently is, with the legislators in the General Assembly drawing their own lines. 61% of respondents oppose the current process, meaning that the majority of Virginians are ready for redistricting reform.

Wason Center survey results regarding Virginians' top choice for redistricting reform.  48 percent of voters favor amending the state constitution to create a non-partisan commission while 24 percent favor creating an advisory commission. Just under 20 percent of voters said to leave the system as is.

One of the most popular proposals for redistricting reform is to create an independent redistricting commission. House Bill 1381, introduced by Dawn Adams (D-Richmond), and Senate Bill 534, introduced by Monty Mason (D-Williamsburg), provides for a referendum for the November 2018 general election that open the discussion to an independent redistricting commission for the drawing of district maps for the House of Delegates, Senate, and congressional districts of Virginia. SB 534 was defeated in a 6-8 vote in the Senate Privileges and Elections committee and HB 1384 has been left in the House Privileges and Elections committee. According to the Wason Center survey, 65% of Virginians support the introduction of an independent advisory commission to propose redistricting plans to the legislators in the General Assembly. Due to gerrymandering efforts, Virginians seem to favor the idea that an independent commission would propose more unbiased plans and opinions to the legislature for approval.

Another primary proposal for redistricting reform is the creation of a non-partisan commission to dominate redistricting without any input or need for approval from the General Assembly. In order to do so, an amendment to the Virginia constitution would have to be passed. According to the Wason Center survey, 61% of Virginians support the creation of a non-partisan commission to draw the districts without approval from the General Assembly. The percentage of Virginians that support the creation of an independent redistricting commission and the percentage that support the constitutional amendment for a non-partisan commission are very similar at 65% and 61% respectively. However, when asked to choose one of the three methods (leave the process as is, independent commission, or constitutional amendment), only 26% of respondents favored creating an independent advisory commission. 48% of respondents favored a constitutional amendment to create a nonpartisan commission and 18% of respondents chose to keep the process how it currently is.

There have been 8 proposed constitutional amendments that would reform the process of redistricting in the state of Virginia. SJ 25, introduced by Emmett Hanger, Jr (R-Mount Solon), proposes a constitutional amendment that would establish a 7 member commission made up of the leaders in the General Assembly such as the President pro tempore, the Senate leader of the opposing party, the Speaker of the House, the House leader of the opposing party, and other leaders in the General Assembly. Del. Rip Sullivan (D-Arlington) introduced both HJ 21 and HJ 5 which creates a redistricting commission comprised of bi-partisan or nonpartisan members and would ensure that districts are not drawn to favor a political party or candidate. HJ 71, introduced by Betsy Carr (D-Richmond), provides a temporary nonpartisan redistricting commission with 7 members that are appointed by a majority vote of the Supreme Court of Virginia from a list of retired judges who have a desire to be on the commission. HJ 71 allows the General Assembly to review and make recommendations after the commission sends them their proposed plans. HJ 83, introduced by Ken Plum, and HJ 104, introduced by Steve Heretick, both would create a redistricting commission that would be comprised of 13 members chosen by House and Senate leadership with the 13th member chosen by a majority vote of the leadership. A unique proposal to the Virginia constitution is HJ 35, introduced by John Bell (D-Chantilly). This amendment would form a redistricting commission that would require that districts are drawn by the “shortest split,” which divides the state into two equally populous halves (based on the Census). The equal line would require the shortest possible line to split the state, then the division of halves would continue until the required number of districts is achieved. As of February 13, all amendments listed have been left in the House or Senate Privileges and Elections committees.

Redistricting has been an issue that has been on the minds of Americans for decades. However, with the upcoming release of the Census, redistricting will be a much more prevalent issue among legislators and their constituents. While redistricting is currently left to the Virginia legislators, the number of districts and how they are drawn affects the United States congressional breakdown and the amount of influence the state of Virginia has in the national government. The Wason Center for Public Policy’s most recent survey effectively reports how Virginians feel about the current redistricting process and how the state should handle possible reform.

Redistricting reform has been a topic of conversation in the Virginia 2018 General Assembly session. House Bill 312, introduced by Jeoin Ward (D-Hampton), would require a special joint reapportionment committee to be appointed to hear public hearings to “encourage public input into and facilitate public participation in the redistricting process.” The committee would consist of 8 members and equal representation of political parties. As of February 1, a house subcommittee voted 7-0 in favor of striking HB 312 from the docket and the bill now remains in the House Rules committee.  Senate Bill 106, introduced by David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke), created standards for congressional and state districts including “equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, respect for existing political boundaries, contiguity, compactness, and communities of interest” which would be applied for the districts drawn after the release of the 2020 Census. SB 106 was passed in a 20-1 vote in the House Privileges and Elections committee and will continue to the full House vote. House Bill 1598, introduced by Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), includes the same standards as SB 106 and was passed by the House in a 97-1 vote on February 13.

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