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Virginia’s Redistricting Commission: Goals, Failures and Lessons Learned

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Office of Research and Outreach at VCU Wilder School
April 1, 2022

A policy debate that’s been occurring in Virginia over the past 12 months has focused on the Virginia Redistricting Commission. The event of redistricting, as it coincides with the U.S. Census, occurs every ten years. This process is largely marked by political parties in power attempting to solidify their chances of winning elections in later years, often egregiously, by manipulating district boundaries to include or exclude certain populations. In turn, redistricting may lend to gross over—or under—representation of political interests as they pertain to race, class or political affiliation. 

Historically, Federal legislation regulating redistricting has increased in complexity, particularly in implementation within southern states. As Canon explains, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 impacted the southern political landscape as it was intended to dissuade legislators from denying or abridging linguistic minorities’ right to vote and also called for a Federal “preclearance” of changes made to “any electoral process or mechanism,” which includes redistricting plans in jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory political practices. However, because “preclearance” was a reactive, rather than a proactive, approach to redistricting discrimination, it did not achieve the intended effects. This section of the Voting Rights Act was struck down in 2013 after the Shelby County vs. Holder case. 

In Virginia, voters elected to amend the state’s Constitution to allow for a redistricting commission in November 2020, with the committee beginning work in 2021. The Commission consisted of 16 members: four members of the Senate of Virginia, four members of Virginia’s House of Representatives and eight citizen members. Members of the general public were also invited to share their thoughts via written comments or via live comments during Commission meetings.

Ultimately, Virginia’s Redistricting Commission was unable to reach an agreement on any potential new maps. In November 2021, one year after voters elected for the creation of the Commission, redistricting authority was passed to the Virginia Supreme Court. Redistricting was completed in December 2021.

In order to better understand Virginians’ perspectives on this Commission, the January 2022 Wilder School Commonwealth Poll included questions on the topic. The poll was conducted from December 13th-30th, 2021, and obtained telephone interviews with a representative sample of 800 adults, ages 18 or older, living in Virginia.

The poll found that only a little over half of respondents (54 percent) were even aware of the existence of Virginia’s bipartisan commission to redraw the state’s electoral maps. When notified that the Commission had been unable to meet its goal of redrawing the maps, 44 percent of respondents felt the makeup of the members of the Commission as a whole were responsible, while 23 percent felt that Republicans were responsible and 17 percent felt that Democrats were responsible.

As the majority of participants felt that the makeup of the Commission led to its ultimate inability to accomplish its goals by the prescribed deadline, some may question if an alternate makeup could have been more effective. A Summer 2018 Wilder School Commonwealth Poll asked “who should have the responsibility of redistricting legislative districts for the state and Federal levels in Virginia?” Responses included:

  • A panel of local and state experts (24 percent),
  • A citizens’ commission (20 percent)
  • A bipartisan commission appointed by the Governor (18 percent)
  • The Virginia General Assembly (16 percent)
  • The Virginia Supreme Court (11 percent)

The remaining participants responded that they were unsure. 

While Virginia’s Redistricting Commission may not have met its goals, there may be lessons to be learned for other states undergoing a similar redistricting process and for Virginia in the future. In the 2018 poll, Virginians seemed to prefer a commission that consisted of local and state experts, as well as citizens, to a commission made up of elected officials or individuals chosen by the governor (also an elected official.) Looking at the 2022 poll, the majority of participants felt that the inability of the Committee to meet its goals was due to the makeup of the Committee as a whole rather than due to a single political party.

Thus, the 2018 preference for experts and citizens—rather than elected officials—may prove to be beneficial, with some making the argument that a nonpartisan, rather than a bipartisan, commission would be more effective. Others advocate for a specific focus on protecting the rights and interests of minority voting populations—something that Virginia’s Black Caucus felt was lacking from the 2021 Commission. 

As Virginia looks to the future, and the eventual need for another redistricting effort following the next Census, the results of 2021 can provide inspiration for future success. By recognizing and mitigating the impact of strict partisanship, future individuals involved in the redistricting process may be able to create fair and representative maps for future voters.

Author: The Office of Research and Outreach at VCU’s Wilder School aims to enhance, promote, and celebrate the research of Wilder School faculty and students. The Office also oversees the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll, as well as research from the Wilder School’s Centers and Institutes.

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