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Virginia Supreme Court dismisses challenge to wording of redistricting amendment
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Virginia Supreme Court dismisses challenge to wording of redistricting amendment

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The Virginia state Capitol, photographed from the Washington Building in Capitol Square.

Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Supreme Court of Virginia has rejected a challenge to the wording of a ballot question tied to a constitutional amendment on redistricting.

The lawsuit alleged that the question is “misleading” and “inaccurate,” and written in a way that leaves voters in the dark about the key effects of the amendment on the state’s redistricting process. It asked the Supreme Court of Virginia to compel state election officials to correct it.

In a decision issued Wednesday, the state’s high court found that the duty of elections officials “is limited to ensuring the ballot question, in the form decided by the General Assembly, appears on the upcoming general election ballot.”

Citing state law, the court found that the Department of Elections and the Board of Elections “have no role” in determining the ballot language, power that lies with the General Assembly, over which the court has limited power.

Paul Goldman, a former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia who is planning to run for lieutenant governor, filed the suit last month against state election officials. Goldman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Aside from voting for president, a U.S. Senate seat and in congressional contests, Virginia voters this fall will be asked to weigh in on a proposed constitutional amendment to change the state’s redistricting process.

The changes would take effect in time for the 2021 redistricting process, which will see the state redraw political boundaries for its congressional and legislative districts, using data from the 2020 census.

If voters approve the measure in November, the constitutional amendment would shift power over the drawing of districts from the General Assembly to a 16-member bipartisan commission of legislators and citizens. The commission would feature four lawmakers of each party from each chamber.

In the event of an impasse over new maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia, which is made up mostly of GOP-appointed justices, would have the final say.

The measure is the result of a 2019 compromise between Democrats and Republicans that attracted broad support from both parties, with the exception of some members of the legislative Black caucus in the House.

In order to become part of the state constitution, a proposed amendment must pass the legislature in successive years, with an election for the House of Delegates in between. The measure cleared the legislature for the second time earlier this year, narrowly succeeding as Democratic support in the House chipped away.

The Democratic Party of Virginia earlier this year formally opposed the measure, approving a resolution opposing the constitutional amendment.

Democrats opposed to the amendment argue that there are no guarantees people of color will serve on the committee drawing the maps, and that the inclusion of lawmakers on the panel goes against the goal of a nonpartisan process.

They also argue that the Supreme Court of Virginia should not be the ultimate arbiter over the maps, and that it could tilt the maps to favor the GOP for a decade.

Goldman argued in court that the language doesn’t explain that the map-drawing would happen under new criteria directing how districts would be drawn. He argues that it also doesn’t explain that citizens on the map-drawing panel would be chosen by partisan lawmakers.

While a lengthier explanation, which is included in a separate pamphlet, does go into more detail, Goldman said few people read it.

“Could the people of Virginia decide what they want to do based on this language? With this, they don’t know what they’re doing,” Goldman said.

The ballot question reads: “Should the Constitution of Virginia be amended to establish a redistricting commission, consisting of eight members of the General Assembly and eight citizens of the Commonwealth, that is responsible for drawing the congressional and state legislative districts that will be subsequently voted on, but not changed by, the General Assembly and enacted without the Governor’s involvement and to give the responsibility of drawing districts to the Supreme Court of Virginia if the redistricting commission fails to draw districts or the General Assembly fails to enact districts by certain deadlines?”

The question and explanation can be found at: www.elections.virginia.gov/proposed-constitutional-amendment-2020.

Still pending before the state Supreme Court is an appeal by rapper and entrepreneur Kanye West of a Richmond judge’s decision barring him from Virginia’s presidential ballot. Lawyers on both sides cite a time crunch given that local election officials must mail absentee ballots by Sept. 18 and in-person absentee voting begins the next day.

mleonor@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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