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GOP Politicians Want a Redistricting Commission. Their Voters Aren’t So Sure

Kirk Cox speaks behind podium
Del. Kirk Cox speaks after winning re-election in 2019. (Whittney Evans/VPM News)

Virginia Republicans are campaigning heavily to pass a Constitutional amendment that backers say will help end gerrymandering. The unanimity stands in contrast to Democratic politicians and the GOP’s own voters, whom polling suggests are divided on the amendment.

The amendment would remove the General Assembly’s traditional role in drawing their own maps and give that power to a 16-person commission made up equally of lawmakers and citizens. The Virginia Supreme Court would serve as a backstop if the commission deadlocks.

Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), a potential gubernatorial candidate who presided over the House when the amendment was crafted in 2019, said he’s talking up the proposal whenever he meets voters.

“You will see us very aggressively supporting it,” Cox said. “There's not many Republican legislators who are not out there promoting that on the stump.”

A poll released by Christopher Newport University last month found that just 32% of Republican voters said they support the amendment, compared to 64% of likely Democratic voters.

Republicans have pumped money into changing that. The State Government Leadership Foundation, a GOP dark money group that ProPublica reported paid for Republican consultants to help draw districts in North Carolina, has donated $50,000 toward the effort. That contribution went to Conservatives for Redistricting Reform, a political action committee that lists Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) as its treasurer.

The money is still a splash in the bucket compared to the over $1.3 million taken in during September alone by FairMapsVA, a fundraising committee formed by amendment backers. Over $1 million of that came from UniteAmerica, a group that seeks to “bridge the partisan divide.” Much of that group’s recent funding comes from Kathryn Murdoch, the daughter of media mogul Rupert Murdoch who takes a more centrist view of politics than her father.

Republican lawmakers’ embrace of the proposal is a shift from 2010, when GOP lawmakers partnered with Black Democrats to carve out favorable lines, 11 of which were later overturned in court in a series of costly lawsuits.

Republican leaders in the House of Delegates continued to voice skepticism of a proposed amendment in the early days of 2019, when they still held control of the General Assembly. In an interview in January of 2019, Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenendoah), who served as House Majority Leader at the time, said it was “lofty, utopian-type thinking” to think that a committee of interested citizens -- or as Gilbert joked, “angels and nuns” -- would be able to scrub partisanship from the process.

OneVirginia2021 sign
A sign promoting redistricting reform from the advocacy group OneVirginia2021. (Yasmine Jumaa/VPM News)

Republicans were more enthusiastic about the resulting compromise that passed the General Assembly later that session and again this year. Democrats were less unified. While Senate Democrats maintained support for the amendment, just nine House Democrats voted for the amendment on its second vote earlier this year. They highlighted perceived flaws ranging from the involvement of lawmakers on the commission to the lack of constitutional mandates requiring minority representation on the commission.

Mark Rush, a professor of political science at Washington & Lee University who studies redistricting, said it was not surprising to see the parties’ stances evolve after Democrats took control of the legislature in the 2019 elections.

“Normally the minority party is absolutely in favor of redistricting reform,” said Rush, who backs the amendment. “The party out of power would like to see if it can't use some new rules to adjust lines and perhaps gain some power back.”

Anna Scholl, director of the progressive group Progress Virginia, said Republicans’ position was consistent.

“I think they see [the amendment] is going to preserve the power of party leadership to run an incumbent protection scheme,” Scholl said, citing the lack of language in the amendment against gerrymandering to protect incumbents.

Cox disputed that. He pointed to the amendment’s passage two years in row, under different parties, as proof that it represented a product of consensus that would yield fair maps. And unifying his caucus around the issue hadn’t been easy, Cox said.

“One of the problems was trying to put together a process that most Republicans could agree to,” Cox said. “I do feel like the people finally felt like, on the Republican side, that [this] was a bill they could support.”