Redistricting: Breakdown!

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

The redistricting process has broken down here on the eve of the deadline of the Virginia Redistricting Commission to report to the General Assembly.

The divisions and distrust are so deep that the members could not agree even on which maps to use as a starting point in session on Friday.

When the Commission last met last Saturday, it ended the day with Republican- and Democratic-drawn maps for both the House of Delegates and Senate. During the first part of this week, it conducted eight virtual public hearings. The goal for today was to adopt one map for each house to report to the General Assembly by the deadline on Monday.

The meeting on Friday started off badly. The Democrats presented a new Senate map, available to the members only at the start of the meeting. The Democrats’ legal team and map drawers explained that the new map incorporated primarily changes that addressed some of the concerns expressed by members in the earlier meeting, as well as some of the concerns expressed in the public hearings. They portrayed developing the map ahead of time as a time-saving step. The Republicans were not buying it. They protested strenuously the introduction of a revised map at the last minute and even objected to having it explained.

After the changes that the new map reflected were explained, there followed a long, inconclusive discussion and debate, primarily between the two sets of attorneys over whether federal  and state law allowed race to be a primary factor in drawing districts with less than a minority majority composition, the so-called coalition and opportunity districts. None of it was new; the members had had this debate before.

In order to move the proceedings along, particularly in light of the deadline facing them, several members proposed adopting one map for each house to be used as a starting point only. Otherwise, as one member said, they could spend the next three hours comparing two maps for the Senate alone. Sen Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, declared that there was no way he could support using a map that he had just seen that morning (the Democratic one) as the starting point.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, moved that the Commission use the latest Republican map as the starting point for the House of Delegates and the latest Democrat map (the one produced Friday morning) as the starting point for the Senate, with the understanding that both maps were subject to revision. The motion failed on a straight party line tie vote, 8-8.

At that point, Greta Harris, the Democrat co-chairwoman who was presiding, announced that she considered the work of the Commission done and that it had failed in its mission. It seemed that she was preparing to adjourn the meeting, when Sen. Barker, D-Fairfax, interceded by proposing that, rather than quit, they proceed, first with the Senate, using maps from both sets of map drawers. When Ms. Harris asked him what he proposed as a starting point for the House, he had no answer.

Some of the Democrat citizen members were openly bitter, citing what they viewed as no effort at compromise coming from the other side. Sen. William Stanley, R-Henry, appealed to them, saying that he understood their frustration, but he felt that there was the opportunity to work something out. One of the Democrat citizen members responded that the actions of the Republicans belied those words, that the Democrats had offered to use one Democrat map and one Republican map as starting points and the Republicans unanimously rejected that offer.

Simon said that he tended to agree with the citizen members. He feared that he was being “slow walked” into continuing the process only to have any tentative product rejected in the end. After all, he pointed out, it takes a supermajority to agree on a final map and they could not get past 8-8 on the starting point.

As tempers and frustrations frayed even further, Harris declared a short recess. When she resumed the meeting, she remarked that she had been working in the nonprofit sector for a long time and had come to realize that, in negotiations, there was a need to build trust. You have to believe that the people across the table are sincere. She stated that she did not feel that all the members of the Commission were sincere in being able to compromise. After appealing directly to the Virginia Supreme Court to take the principles and criteria adopted by the Commission to “lift up fairness,” she announced she was through. Two other Democrat members, James Abrenio of Fairfax and Brandon Hutchins of Virginia Beach, walked out with her, depriving the Commission of a quorum.

The remaining members were stunned, and there was some confusion as to whether or how they could proceed. In the end, they agreed the meeting was effectively adjourned. The possibility of any action on Saturday was left hanging.

My Soapbox

Many observers will profess no surprise at this outcome. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, even asked, given the history of the Commission, “Why are we surprised?”

There is blame to go around. The Democrats did not play fair by dropping a new Senate map into the mix at the last minute and insisting that it be used as a reference point. It is hard to believe that the map could not have been ready and sent out to members a couple of days in advance. The Democrats could have ceded that point and backed off and agreed to use their earlier Senate map, distributed last Saturday as a starting point. For their part, it was clear that Republicans were not willing to compromise at all. For example, they could have suggested that the earlier Democrat Senate map be used. Instead, Sen. McDougle made a substitute motion that the Republican Senate map, rather than the Democrat one, be used as the starting point. And, in the end, the Democrats did propose that a map from each side be used for starting points, subject to revision. From the viewpoint of the general public, that probably seems a compromise.

To me, the most frustrating aspect is that the breakdown did not come over the adoption of a final map, but over what map to use in fashioning the final product. Of course, the starting point is of vital importance. Any substantive change in that starting point would have to be approved on a roll call vote, which would fail on a 8 to 8 tie.

The fate of the Commission is uncertain. If they can get a quorum, they could meet again over the weekend to try to reach a conclusion. However, the distrust and bitterness seem too deep now for there to be a reasonable expectation that will happen.

The Constitution lays out two possible routes. First, if the Commission submits a report to the General Assembly by Monday, the legislature then would have to take an up or down vote. If the General Assembly did not adopt the plan, the Commission could submit a revised plan to the legislature for another vote. If the legislature defeated that plan, it would be up to the Supreme Court. The second track would allow the Commission to request an extension on its deadline to submit a report to the General Assembly. If it did that, however, it would not have a chance to submit a revised plan if the General Assembly turned it down.

Finally, even if the Commission cannot agree on a redistricting plan for the General Assembly, it is not completely out of business. The redistricting of Congressional districts is on a different time schedule and approval track.

It remains to be seen if the Commission can overcome its divisions. One prediction: the Republicans could accuse the Democrats of killing any chance of compromise by walking out. (Sen. Stanley hinted at that line of attack in comments before the meeting finally broke up.)