2021 Redistricting Timeline

In 2021, redistricting ceased to be a “winner-take-all” exercise. Voters approved a new process, one that called for bipartisan cooperation. But Virginia’s new Redistricting Commission never came close to agreement. In the end, the responsibility to draw new district boundaries fell to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The court tasked two consultants — one nominated by each party — to draw maps that didn't favor either side. The only persons disadvantaged by the final product were incumbents, many of whom were paired (or even tripled) in a single district.

Voters Approve Referendum

November 2020

In November 2020, Virginians voted by a two-to-one margin to amend the state constitution to establish a commission responsible for redistricting. For the vote to take place, state legislators had to agree to surrender one of their most guarded perks: the majority party's ability each decade to craft legislative boundaries designed to extend its hold on power.

Republicans — who saw their majority in the House of Delegates slipping away — were unanimously in support of the decisive March 2020 vote. But most House Democrats — who had supported redistricting reform for a generation — had second thoughts. After all, power seemed within their grasp. In the end, nine House Democrats agreed to put the question to the voters.

The Commission is Selected, Work is Stalled

December 2020
August 2021

Unlike redistricting commissions set up in other states, the plan presented to voters did not seek to take partisan politics out of the process of redrawing legislative districts. In fact, partisanship was baked into every step. Legislators — four Republicans, four Democrats — made up half of the 16-member commission. There were eight citizen members, all nominated by legislators and evenly divided by party.

The redistricting timeline is always tight in Virginia, one of only two states that hold elections for state legislative districts in November of the year following the Census. Virginia expected to receive population updates from the Census by March. But delays caused in part by COVID-19 meant the data didn't arrive until August. Election officials had no choice but to hold the November 2021 House elections in districts that had been drawn in the previous decade.

Bipartisan Cooperation Eludes the Commission

August 2021
November 2021

From the start, Republicans and Democrats on the commission took to their corners. In contested votes, the commission hired two sets of partisan legal advisors and two partisan map makers. This became a major impediment, as each side would look to its experts, who often provided differing legal interpretations of election law, particularly when it came to how the commission should consider the issue of race.

Facing a tight deadline, the commission plowed ahead with a series of public hearings before it had reached agreement on a single set of maps to present for public comment. Later, tensions flared to the point that three of the Democratic commission members walked out of a meeting. In the end, the commission was an exercise in mutual distrust. It gave up without even voting on a plan, which meant the task of redrawing districts fell to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court Demands Partisan Cooperation

November 2021
December 2021

The Court's role was narrowly defined by the Democratic-controlled legislature. The justices were given instructions to hire two experts — one nominated by Republican legislators, the other by Democratic legislators — and to direct the experts to "work together" to create a single map. Within a few weeks, the mapmakers produced their work that they said would not disadvantage either party.

The Court's plan, however, did disadvantage one class of people: incumbent legislators. Back when legislators controlled the process, they were careful to protect their own interests. But the Court's mapmakers deliberately were blind to where legislators lived. The result was that half of 140 state legislators were placed in the same districts, many of them with members of the same political party. This created a slew of open seats and left many incumbents with the choice of moving to another district, retiring, or facing off against a fellow legislator in a primary or general election.