Frequently Asked Questions
What is redistricting?
Redistricting is the once-a-decade process when boundaries of legislative districts are redrawn to account for population shifts identified in the national Census. Each district must have roughly the same number of people. This means fast-growing areas of Virginia gain seats (and the related political clout) while areas with slower-growth lose representation.
Why is redistricting important?
Lines can be drawn to include one neighborhood and exclude another in ways that have a subtle, but profound, impact on the partisan lean of the political map. Since the founding of the nation, those in power have sought to draw the lines to control the political process.
Who draws the lines?
Traditionally, the General Assembly drew the maps, which were subject to the Governor's power to amend or veto. In November 2020, Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that shifts the authority to a 16-member commission.
Will the Commission be independent?
Some states have set up redistricting commissions to insulate the process from state legislators, who have a self-interest in the outcome. That is not the case in Virginia. The voter-approved plan allows state legislators to retain considerable leverage in the process. This includes:
- Legislators make up half of the 16-member commission
- Legislators pick four of the five retired circuit court judges who select the citizen members
- Legislative leaders must endorse any citizen who wishes to be considered for the Commission.
A citizen will be selected to chair the Commission.
Will the commission take politics out of redistricting?
No. The voter-approved plan features a carefully calibrated political balance. The Commission will consist of:
- Four Republican state legislators
- Four Democratic state legislators
- Four citizens endorsed by Republican legislative leaders
- Four citizens endorsed by Democratic legislative leaders
This balanced approach seeks to replace what had been a "to the victor go the spoils" exercise in raw political power with bipartisan agreement.
What criteria will the Commission use to draw districts?
The General Assembly passed legislation that spells out nine standards and criteria for the Commission to follow when crafting the 100 House of Delegates, 40 State Senate and 11 congressional districts. Among the criteria are requirements set in the state constitution (districts must be contiguous, compact and contain equal representation) and recognition of federal voting rights laws and judicial rulings (which protect the ability of racial minorities to elect a member of their choice).
Other criteria include:
- The maps may not favor or disfavor any political party.
- Efforts must be made to preserve "communities of interest," which are defined as a "neighborhood or any geographically defined group of people living in an area who share similar social, cultural, and economic interests." Communities of interest are NOT defined as jurisdictional boundaries.
- Persons convicted of a crime and incarcerated shall be listed at their last known address, not the correctional facility where they resided at the time of the Census.
How will the Commission reach an agreement?
A "super-majority" is required to approve a map. For instance, to submit a proposed map for the State Senate, a plan must receive affirmation from at least six of eight legislative members, including three of four from the Senate. Support is also needed from six of eight citizen members.
What is the General Assembly's role?
Once approved by the Commission, a map goes to the General Assembly for consideration. Legislators cannot amend the map – they only vote aye or nay. Approval requires a simple majority in each chamber. (If a map fails, the Commission has the opportunity to craft a second map for the General Assembly's consideration.)
What if the Commission cannot produce a map or the General Assembly does not approve a Commission map?
If the General Assembly does not approve a map, then the responsibility would fall to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Court must hire two experts – one selected by Republicans, another by Democrats – to draw a map for the justices to consider.
Does the Governor have a say?
No. The voter-approved plan leaves no role for the executive branch.
How long will the process take?
Anywhere from two to five months. It all depends on how quickly the Commission can draw maps and if the General Assembly finds them acceptable. The gun goes off as soon as the U.S. Census Bureau provides updated population data. When that happens, the Commission has 45 days to approve a map of both state House and Senate districts. (It has another 15 days to produce a congressional map). The General Assembly must vote within 15 days. A second map could take nearly another month. If the General Assembly can't agree, the Supreme Court of Virginia gets involved.
Will there be any opportunity for citizens and groups to comment on the Commission's work?
All Commission meetings shall be open to the public. The constitutional amendment also requires the Commission to hold at least three public hearings in different parts of the state before proposing maps and before voting on any redistricting plans.
Will the commission allow outside groups to submit maps of their own?
It's hard to say, as this is an entirely new process. The Commission will make these kinds of decisions when it holds its first meeting, which must be held by February 1.
What is the deadline so House elections set for November 2021 can be held in the new districts?
That is hard to say. Department of Elections staff say for House primaries to take place in late August, they would need the new maps by April 2. But legislators will push for a later day. In any event, in order to hold elections in the new House districts, time is needed for local voter registrars to update the records of millions of voters whose districts will change, and for candidates to gather signatures for the ballot and early voting to take place in the August primaries.
What would happen if the new maps are not ready in time?
The State Supreme Court would need to grant an order that the 2021 House elections proceed in existing districts. The question is whether those who win in November 2021 would serve full two-year terms (with the new districts introduced in the 2023 general elections) or serve one-year terms (with the new districts introduced in 2022 special elections).
Will the Commission's maps result in more competitive elections?
Fostering competitive elections is NOT among the criteria the Commission may consider. Some parts of Virginia are so lopsidedly red or blue, it would be impossible to draw competitive districts. One factor that may work against competitive districts is the Commission's charge to create maps that reflect the statewide partisan lean. This suggests an approach that favors reliable outcomes, not highly competitive races with unpredictable results.
One complaint with past maps is that cities and counties get carved up into different districts. Will the Commission produce maps that are more likely to respect city and county boundaries?
This remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely. The criteria approved by the legislature (in lopsided votes, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed) instruct the Commission to prioritize "communities of interest" over jurisdictional boundaries. This could mean, for instance, the Commission could decide to place a rural county in transition into two different legislative districts if it determined the county's less populated areas had little in common culturally, socially or economically with the county's suburban neighborhoods.