Committee Rejects Bill to Make Redistricting Meetings More Transparent

By Megan Schiffres

February 17, 2021

Lawmaker says it’s “too soon” to make changes to the commission.

RICHMOND – A bill to increase the transparency of Virginia’s new redistricting process was killed by the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections on Tuesday. 

House Bill 2082, introduced by Del. Mark Levine (D – Alexandria), would require all meetings and hearings of the Virginia Redistricting Commission to be public and available online.

Current law requires the commission to publish its proposed plan on their website. Three public hearings need to take place on these plans before they can get approval from the commission. Under Levine’s bill, if the commission changes the plan, another public hearing must also follow. 

However, that’s not going to happen. With a vote of 7-6-2, committee members, including three Democrats, killed the bill. 

Senators Creigh Deeds (D- Charlottesville), Adam Ebbin (D – Alexandria), Ruff (R-Clarksville), Mark Peake (R – Lynchburg), John Bell (D – Broadlands), and Siobhan Dunnavant (R – Henrico) cast votes in favor of killing the bill. 

Problems With The Redistricting Commission 

There’s several reasons why people like Del. Levine have an interest in increasing the transparency of Virginia’s redistricting process. 

In 2019, the Supreme Court of Virginia said Virginia’s district lines were unconstitutional due to racial gerrymandering by Republicans. The Commonwealth is now under orders from the court to redraw its lines equitably. 

Virginia voters supported a constitutional amendment to create the redistricting commission last Fall. The commission met for the first time in January. Though it’s marketed as an alternative to legislators deciding how to draw district lines, the commission’s makeup is far from non-partisan. 

All total, 16 members compose the redistricting commission. Of those 16, half are members of the General Assembly. The other eight members are ordinary citizens of the Commonwealth.  

A panel of retired judges appointed these citizen members, from a list provided by Republican and Democrat leaders in the House and Senate. Though they have to disclose their party affiliations, there’s nothing in the Virginia Code stopping people with strong political leanings or connections from joining the commission. 

RELATED: Census Delays Create Challenges for Virginia’s Redistricting Commission

The Role of the Supreme Court in Redistricting

If the committee had not cast votes to kill it, Levine’s bill would have also increased transparency within the Supreme Court of Virginia. Under the amendment Virginians approved in 2020, the Commonwealth’s Supreme Court is responsible to establishing districts if the commission and General Assembly fail to. 

If passed, Levine’s bill would have made the court’s deliberations on this issue public information. However, representatives of the court gave testimony at the meeting Tuesday that this presents concerns related to the constitutionality of the bill. 

“That does raise a separation of powers issue. As you know courts have oral hearings, they have oral argument cases at the Supreme Court. And then the decision is made, it’s published in writing for everyone to see. But the deliberations of the court are never open to the public,” said Assistant Executive Secretary and Counsel Edward Macon. 

This was the reason Sen. Deeds gave for not supporting Levine’s bill.

But, Levine pointed out, the creation of the redistricting commission already expanded the powers and responsibilities of the court. 

“It’s the only time in the whole Constitution of Virginia, the Supreme Court is not acting under the judiciary branch, Article 6. It’s actually acting under Article 2,” Levine said. “When it’s politically choosing among maps, then it’s… doing the exact same content the commission is doing. And in that narrow capacity, it should be open to the public. And it’s not a separation of powers issue, because the Supreme Court is acting as a commission not acting as a court.” 

Killed Despite Overwhelming Support

No one spoke against the bill during the meeting. However, six representatives of organizations and private individuals across the Commonwealth gave testimony in favor of its passage Tuesday.

These organizations include The Virginia Grassroots Coalition, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, and the Virginia Civic Engagement Table. 

Despite overwhelming testimony in favor, senators cast votes to kill the bill with minimal discussion. Sen. Bell, who made the motion to pass the bill by indefinitely, says it was too soon to make changes to the commission.

“I think this is not the time for these changes,” said Bell. 

This, despite the fact that the commission has already begun its meetings. 

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