Virginia lawmakers approved a proposed change to the state's constitution on Friday that supporters said would curb political gerrymandering, prompting an outcry by some Democrats who called it harmful to African Americans.
The state House narrowly voted to approve the proposed constitutional amendment that would task a bipartisan commission made up of lawmakers and citizens with drawing new congressional and legislative maps every 10 years. The measure, which critics called deeply flawed, passed last year with broad bipartisan support now heads to voters for a final decision in the fall.
Virginia Democrats have been in a national spotlight on redistricting reform after taking full control of the statehouse this year. The party has made redistricting reform a key campaign plank but has split on whether to support the proposed constitutional amendment or support alternative proposals that would give the new Democratic majority a greater say in drawing maps next year.
House Democrats were more divided on the measure than anything else this year and several members gave emotional floor speeches ahead of the vote. Opponents said there were better ways to reform redistricting and lawmakers should work in future years to craft a better constitutional amendment that is more independent of partisan pressures and better protects minorities.
“I see nothing wrong with reaching for perfection," Democratic Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring said.
A key sticking point for opponents was the fact that the state's Supreme Court, which currently leans conservative, would have the final say in drawing maps in the event of a deadlock.
Supporters said the amendment was “real reform” and would ensure fair maps will be drawn next year. They urged lawmakers to support the measure, even if it is not perfect.
“I do think it moves us forward,” Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg said.
The measured passed the House with every Republican voting for it along with nine out of 55 Democrats.
The 2020 census aims to count everyone living in the U.S. as of April 1. Those totals — broken down by counties, cities and specific addresses — will be provided to states in 2021 to use in drawing new boundaries for voting districts that could influence the balance of political power in Congress and state legislatures for the next decade.
In many states, lawmakers and governors will shape the new districts. After Republicans scored big statehouse victories in the 2010 elections, they used their enhanced power in 2011 to draw districts to their advantage in some states. Democrats have historically done the same where they were in control.
Redistricting has long been a hot-button issue in Virginia, where federal judges in recent years have struck down both the state legislative and congressional maps as racially discriminatory.
Many black lawmakers in the House objected to the proposal last year and again this year on the grounds that it could dilute the influence of African Americans in drawing maps. They said Friday on the House floor that the issue was of supreme importance to them and pleaded with their Democratic colleagues to side with them.
“Hear our voices, please; do what's right and not what's easy," said Del. Jeff Bourne.
Black lawmakers in the Senate support he amendment, and it passed the upper body with near unanimous support earlier this year.