Don’t Expect Virginia’s Redistricting Commission to Change the Political Culture

On Nov. 3, voters will decide on a proposed constitutional amendment that its backers insist will end the centuries-old scourge of partisan gerrymandering.

As an old government reformer (my cause was term limits — an issue that’s akin to a cross made of garlic to members of the political class), I admire the zeal of those supporting the idea.

But let’s be clear: Virginia’s proposed redistricting amendment likely won’t change much about the commonwealth’s political culture.

That’s because, despite the amendment’s packaging and its backers’ repeated assertions, it is not nonpartisan. It is thoroughly partisan. By design. And that means politics will, as they always have, decide how Virginia’s district maps are drawn.

As The Post’s Laura Vozzella reported back in 2018:

The group’s [backing] plan would not take politics entirely out of the redistricting process. Under the proposal, the four top leaders of the General Assembly — the speaker and minority leader in the House, and the majority and minority leaders in the Senate — would each pick one retired circuit court judge to serve on a selection committee. Those four judges would pick a fifth to round out the committee, which would then pick 22 candidates for the redistricting commission. Of that group, five would be Democrats, five Republicans and 12 independents.

Let’s set aside the argument over whether political independents are real or mythological. The partisanship of the proposed redistricting commission is plain as day: half the commission’s members are incumbent legislators. How about those “independent” members? The byzantine process for getting those rare and noble souls on the commission is as political as can be.

First, the state’s chief justice provides House and Senate leaders with a list of retired circuit court judges willing to serve as a five-member selection committee. House and Senate leaders pick four of the retirees to serve. What criteria will they use? None exist.

But Virginia is one of two states where legislators elect judges. This flawed system has resulted in some high-profile instances of nepotism in recent years, as well as a tendency of legislators to appoint their own to the bench, including the Supreme Court. An ex-judge’s politics, then, could easily decide whether he or she gets picked for the selection committee.

Once chosen, the four ex-judges then chose the fifth member, who becomes the chairman and, presumably, the public face of the selection committee.

Where’s the partisanship in this? Everywhere — by design.

We can certainly hope the one-time jurists think beyond any Team Red or Team Blue allegiances they may have (just don’t bet on it). But let’s assume the best. How do they go about choosing the independent citizen members of the commission?

They pick from a list of names House and Senate leaders provide. The only restriction placed (so far) on who gets to appear on those lists? They cannot be a “member or employee of the Congress of the United States or of the General Assembly.”

As Paul Goldman, my former writing partner and current candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, has written, this doesn’t even begin to guarantee independence:

There is NO constitutional requirement that even one person be an independent or independent of the political power structure. This is NOT an oversight.

Continue reading at the Washington Post.

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