HARRISONBURG — A Senate bill requiring Virginia’s legislative and congressional districts to be more compact is now being considered by the House Committee on Privileges and Elections.
The legislation, Senate Bill 106, was introduced by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Floyd. Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, is a co-patron in the House. In addition to requiring districts to have roughly equal population, the bill also mandates that districts cannot be “oddly shaped or have irregular or contorted boundaries,” unless such shapes are justified by municipality lines.
The bill passed the Senate 22-17 on Jan. 26.
But the legislation received mixed reviews about its ability to change the way political districts are drawn.
Bob Roberts, a James Madison University political science professor, said the bill’s language is vague to the point where the court system will struggle to actually enforce it.
“This is a symbolic measure to make it look like the legislature wants to do something when it really doesn’t,” Roberst said, “as of now.”
A computer program could be designed to draw district lines that respects the bill’s criteria and still lays out gerrymandered districts, he said.
“It’s a decision whether we want to take politics out of it, and we can take politics out of it, but we don’t want to because there is nothing here that says anything about political gerrymandering,” Roberts said. “You can politically gerrymander within contiguous districts. It’s not difficult.”
Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021, a coalition that advocates for nonpartisan redistricting, said he thinks the bill sets the stage for future constitutional amendments to end gerrymandering in the commonwealth.
There is a similar bill in the House, HB 1598, introduced by Del. Chris Jones, R-Chesapeake.
“This is a great start to the conversation,” he said. “It means we’re engaged. … That points us in the right position, and I think that’s a great place to be a year out from our constitutional amendment process.”
He also said he appreciates that the bill encourages compact districts while still respecting municipal boundaries.
The bill could be improved, he said, with anti-gerrymandering language. He believes an independent commission is the key to ending political gerrymandering in the commonwealth.
Several lawmakers have introduced constitutional amendments this session with plans to establish such commissions, he said.
But the General Assembly will not vote on those until next year at the earliest, Cannon said.
The General Assembly has to pass constitutional amendments by a simple majority two years in a row around an election.
An amendment, if passed by the legislature, would then goes on the ballot for Virginians to vote on. If passed with more than 50 percent of the vote, it then becomes part of the Virginia Constitution.