MBU professor discusses redistricting commission referendum on 2020 ballot

Published: Oct. 16, 2020 at 3:33 PM EDT
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STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) — Virginians have the opportunity to have a say in the way districts are drawn in the state by voting on a referendum on the 2020 ballot.

The Virginia General Assembly is currently responsible for drawing the state’s legislative and congressional districts.

“How those seats are drawn can give an advantage or a disadvantage to a particular group or a particular incumbent, or a particular candidate, or a particular political party,” Laura van Assendelft, a political science professor at Mary Baldwin University, said.

Because the two political parties are so ideologically different, van Assendelft said people feel more concerned about which party might have control overdrawing the lines.

Most states are required to draw new congressional lines every ten years, following the U.S. Census. Since 2020 is a Census year, van Assendelft said a lot is at stake.

When voting this election cycle, Virginians have the opportunity to vote to transfer the redistricting power to a 16-member commission, made up of eight legislators, including two Senate and two House Republicans, and with two Senate and two House Democrats, along with eight citizens. Legislators would recommend those eight people, but retired circuit court judges would be selecting them.

“There’s a perception of increased diversity in terms of who is drawing the lines,” van Assendelft said.

van Assendelft said some people might be reluctant to vote in favor of the amendment, though, if they feel their political party is going to draw those lines.

Once new maps are agreed upon, the Virginia General Assembly would vote to pass into law or reject them.

“If something egregious comes out of that process, the General Assembly could still veto those maps, and so then it would go to the state supreme court to draw those districts,” van Assendelft.

While transferring the redistricting power to a commission could be seen as a step toward increasing the legitimacy of the process, van Assendelft said it does not necessarily eliminate bias or prevent gerrymandering.

van Assendelft said redistricting is only part of the issue of representation. She said we cannot control where people live. For example, one urban area may have more Democratic voters and rural areas may have more Republican voters. van Assendelft said no matter how you draw certain districts, there could still be red or blue districts.

She said single-member districts can also lead to misrepresentation.

“When you have single-member districts, you always have a potential bias of over-representation of whichever political party wins that district,” van Assendelft said.

She explained that the other political party may have close to 50 percent but have 0 representation.

van Assendelft said that is why is it is up to representatives to represent all of their constituents and not just those who elected them.

“And it’s up to us, the voters, to hold those legislators accountable for meeting the needs of the entire district and putting the public good above any partisan or self-interest,” van Assendelft said.

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