RICHMOND — The state Senate voted 21-17 Monday to approve a redistricting reform bill that has nearly the same language as a bill Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed less than a year ago.
The legislation from Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, would require state legislative districts and congressional districts to be contiguous and compact. Only one Democrat — Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City — broke from his party to vote in favor of the bill.
SB 1579 says districts “shall not be oddly shaped or have irregular or contorted boundaries unless justified because the district adheres to political boundary lines.”
It says, “Fingers or tendrils extending from a district core shall be avoided, as shall thin and elongated districts with multiple core populations connected by thin strips of land or water.”
Suetterlein used his own meandering district as an example of the problem he hopes his “anti-gerrymandering” bill will address. He represents eight localities, but only two are entirely in his 19th Senate District.
He represents half of towns like Hillsville and Wytheville. Of Roanoke County’s five magisterial districts, he represents all of one, and the rest are split with two other senators representing them. He even represents numerous split precincts.
Suetterlein said districts such as his are “needlessly complicated.”
Suetterlein said there are people confused about who represents them or where they are supposed to vote. For legislators trying to be accessible to their constituents, it’s challenging to attend all the Farm Bureau events and NAACP meetings.
When Democrats controlled the state Senate in 2011, Northam, then a senator from Norfolk, voted to approve lines like these. Those lines also made Northam’s district swing more blue.
The Northam administration supported a redistricting bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, which failed to make it out of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee last week after a 7-7 vote.
A main difference between McClellan’s bill and Suetterlein’s bill was that McClellan included language that says districts should not be drawn for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring any political party or legislator. Political data can’t be used to draw districts.
Her language addresses one of the reasons Northam cited for his veto of Suetterlein’s bill last year.
McClellan’s SB 1327 also gives more weight to keeping communities of interest together that may otherwise get split up if districts are drawn by prioritizing county or city lines.
Her bill says, “Existing communities of interest shall be respected to the maximum extent practicable.”
She described last week communities of interest that are located in both Henrico County and Richmond. She said communities should not be split up, if possible.
“We need to decide what’s more important: keeping communities of interest together or keeping jurisdictional boundaries together,” she said.
Suetterlein’s bill does say that “consideration may be given to communities of interest by creating districts that do not carve up homogeneous neighborhoods or separate groups of people living in an area with similar interests or needs in transportation, employment or culture.”
General Assembly members draw their own district lines as well as Virginia’s congressional districts. The party with the majority typically draws lines to benefit itself. Districts boundaries will be redrawn in 2021, following the 2020 Census.
So it seems an open question whether Suetterlein’s bill — if it passes the House of Delegates — is destined to have Northam’s veto pen come down on it again.
Jessica Killeen, deputy counsel to Northam, told the committee last week that the Northam administration opposes Suetterlein’s bill because it believes “it does not go far enough to address some of the concerns we believe should be in criteria for redistricting.”
Before McClellan’s bill died, committee Chairwoman Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, asked Killeen if Northam would support Suetterlein’s bill.
“The real question is could you see the administration being in a position where the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good, and the good gets the majority of the people’s support?” she asked.
Killeen responded, “I believe that we would take a look.”