The 20-20 divided Virginia Senate took extraordinary action to drastically rewrite the district lines for 45 percent of Virginia’s residents on Inauguration Day. On January 21, 2013, State Senator Henry March—a Civil Rights Activist—left the state to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The Virginia Senate quickly moved to take advantage of his absence and introduced, amended and passed an amendment to a House bill making technical changes to the 2011 redistricting lines. By the time the temporarily Republican-controlled Senate was done with the technical fixes presented by the House, it had fully rewritten a number of senate districts—displacing almost 2 million Virginia residents into new districts. While the current Senate is evenly split with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, some estimates suggest that the newly-proposed lines might result in a far more lopsided chamber even though there has been no significant change in the makeup of VA’s electorate in the 19 months since the previous lines were approved. The proposal could put Republicans in position to win 27 seats in the Senate at the next election, which would give Republicans a veto-proof supermajority in the chamber. This bill, as amended, passed on a party-line vote, 20 to 19, with Sen. March absent.
Beyond the stunning political chicanery of holding a vote while a state senator attended the presidential inauguration, the legislative processes also violated basic principles of transparency and representation necessary for fair redistricting. The legislation was introduced and passed in less than one day. There were no hearings, no opportunity for public comment, no advance publication of the district lines or any other opportunity for the public to understand the new lines or the impact on their legislative districts. Gov. Bob McDonnell haspublicly condemned and distanced himself from the actions of the Senate Republicans but has not gone so far as to promise to veto the legislation. The Virginia House heard the revised bill on Tuesday and a final vote is expected later this week.
This attempt by Virginia’s senate republicans to rewrite the district lines after the 2011 lines were signed into law raises serious constitutional questions. Virginia’s constitution requires that redistricting occur in 2011 and every ten years thereafter. It does not provide for any other time for redistricting, although it does not expressly preclude it. But in 2011, Richmond District Court Judge Richard D. Taylor, Jr., in a decision addressing a dispute regarding timing of Virginia’s most recent congressional redistricting, reasoned that Virginia’s General Assembly does not have the authority to reapportion districts any time it chooses.