By Cameron Vigliano
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – A bill aimed at taking some of the politics out of redistricting was struck down by a House subcommittee early Thursday morning.
Senate Bill 840, introduced by Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian, would have provided criteria for the General Assembly to follow in redrawing congressional and legislative districts. The bill generally would have prohibited legislators from using political data or election results in redistricting.
“It’s sort of common sense, with logical regard to how we redistrict,” Watkins said. “I’ve been through four redistrictings, and I’ve seen how technology has changed our point of view to how we draw those boundaries.”
Watkins’ bill passed the Senate unanimously on Feb. 2. It then was sent to the House and assigned to the House Committee on Privileges and Elections. The committee’s Elections Subcommittee took up the bill during a meeting that began at 7:30 a.m.
Although the Elections Subcommittee has a Republican majority, Watkins’ colleagues voted 4-3 to table his bill.
Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, suggested that SB 840 be shelved. He said there is no need to establish redistricting criteria because federal guidelines are already in place.
“I don’t care what criteria you use; it’s going to be impossible to draw a competitive district,” Cole said. “The problem isn’t where the district lines are. The problem is, I see a polarization within the population – not just in Virginia but across the country.”
SB 840 had endorsements from several groups, including the League of Women Voters, the AARP, the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia Municipal League, One Virginia 2021 and the Virginia Poverty Law Center. No one spoke in opposition to the bill.
The General Assembly redraws political boundaries every 10 years, using data from the decennial census.
Historically, legislators have redrawn district lines for partisan advantages. In 1991, the Democrats redrew districts to their favor. Ten years later, Republicans did the same thing. The result is that many districts are either heavily Republican or heavily Democratic; because of lack of competition, incumbents often run unopposed.
Watkins’ bill sought to establish criteria for redistricting:
- “Existing political boundaries shall be respected to the maximum extent possible.” That means the General Assembly should try to avoid splitting cities or counties when it draws congressional and legislative districts. “
- Legislative and congressional districts should be based on population, which each district being “substantially equal to each other.”
- Districts should be compact and composed of contiguous territory – not oddly shaped. The manipulation of district lines is often called gerrymandering, from when a Massachusetts politician named Elbridge Gerry drew a district that supposedly resembled a salamander.
- Districts shall be drawn in compliance with federal and state law, judicial decisions and the amended federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- Consideration to drawing lines could be given to communities and neighborhoods that share common interests or needs in transportation, employment or culture.
An especially important passage in SB 840 was: “The General Assembly shall not include political data or election results as part of a redistricting database, and no district shall be drawn using political data or election results in order to favor a political party or incumbent legislator. This prohibition includes using addresses of incumbent legislators, political affiliations of voters, and previous election results.”
Under the bill, political data could be used only if need “to determine if racial or ethnic minorities can elect candidates of their choice.”
A similar piece of legislation also was on the Elections Subcommittee’s docket.
A resolution introduced by Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester, called for creating an independent commission to redraw congressional and legislative districts. The commission would follow the criteria described in SB 840.
Vogel’s resolution was passed by for the day.
Here is how the House Elections Subcommittee voted Thursday on SB 840 (“Congressional and state legislative districts”).
02/19/15 House: Subcommittee recommends laying on the table (4-Y 3-N)
YEAS – Ransone, Landes, Fowler, Cole – 4.
NAYS – Minchew, Sickles, Futrell – 3.