Redistricting: Impasse?

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Virginia Redistricting Commission started its meeting on Saturday with the goal of reaching a preliminary agreement on one draft map for the House of Delegates and one draft map for the Senate in anticipation of public hearings scheduled to begin on Monday. Six hours later, the meeting was adjourned with the members at a near impasse.  There was no “integrated” map for either house and the members had trouble agreeing on how to proceed to the public hearings.

Continuing the approach they had been using in the past, there was a House map developed by the Republican map drawer and one by the Democratic map drawer, each incorporating changes suggested by the Commission members in earlier meetings. During their review, they made some progress, even tweaking some lines in the Lynchburg area and some involving Pittsylvania, Henry, Patrick, and Floyd counties.  The problems arose when they began considering Hampton Roads and the Richmond area.

There is a fundamental disagreement. It centers around so called “opportunity districts,” defined as districts in which Black and other nonwhite minorities make up 40% to 50% of the voting age population. The argument goes that such districts give minorities a valid opportunity to influence who is elected. The Republican attorney contends that the Voting Rights Act required the creation of a majority/minority district when there is the possibility that such can be created, but the Voting Rights Act does not require the creation of opportunity districts. Democrats counter that the redistricting criteria recently set out in Virginia law require the creation of opportunity districts. One attorney for the  Democrats went so far to say that, in some cases, opportunity districts may be preferable to majority/minority districts. During the discussion, there were  allusions to “packing black votes in districts” and “moving voters around” to create opportunity districts.  Because the Virginia statutory provisions are new and have not been tested, there is no case law to guide the Commission.

They are fighting over district lines in Hampton Roads and Richmond. It is not clear how many districts are at stake, but the Republican map has fewer opportunity districts than the Democrats’ map. Each side is jockeying for partisan advantage. The Democrats deeply distrust the Republican map-drawer due to his association with the 2011 redistricting process. One of the Democrats’ attorneys even came close to impugning the integrity of the map drawer, only to be admonished by the co-chairwoman to stick to the current maps.

During the discussion of opportunity districts, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Henry,  rhetorically asked, “Opportunity for what? To elect more Democrats?”

At one point, Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) declared that the differences were so fundamental that, if they could not find some way of compromise or accommodation, they may as well quit and turn it over to the Supreme Court.

As for the Senate map, they thought they had one that they could present to the public for comment, but they had asked the map drawers to work on the lines around a couple of districts in Hampton Roads and come back with their suggestions. Instead the map drawers presented two maps, each significantly different from the single map being worked on earlier in the week. It was not clear why that occurred, but some members, especially Sen. Ryan McDougle R-Hanover, were upset about it.

After lunch, it was obvious that they were not going to be able to produce single integrated draft maps for each house. They then spent about two hours discussing how to proceed because the deadline is a week away and they have public hearings scheduled for four days next week. The logical procedure would be to present the latest versions of the Democratic and Republican maps for each house and invite the public to comment on them. There seemed to be some hesitancy, perhaps due to a fear that designating specific maps would be perceived as an endorsement of them. In addition, McDougle commented that he liked elements of both House maps and had no problem presenting them as drafts, but he declared adamantly that he did not like either one of the Senate maps and could not agree to presenting them for comment.

In the end, it was agreed –(the Commission has not had any votes since the actual consideration of maps, perhaps wanting to avoid public partisan splits — that staff would load the latest maps in the system, along with all the prior versions and the public could comment on whatever it wished.

Next Friday’s meeting, at which they will need to produce one map for each house to be submitted to the General Assembly should be interesting to watch. However, Greta Harris, one of the co-chairwomen, will be chairing the meeting and is not looking forward to it. “The thought of next Friday’s meeting turns my stomach,” she lamented.

If you are so inclined, the schedule of the virtual public hearing is here. You can participate live (virtual), email your comments, or place your comment on the actual map. Public comment is being taken seriously. During their explanation of their maps, both sets of map drawers mentioned several times that a particular configuration was the result of public input. The list of the maps is here. The latest maps are A7 Statewide HOD, B6 Statewide HOD, A5 Statewide SD, and B4 Statewide SD. (The maps designated with A are from the Republican map drawer; Bs are from the Democrat map drawer. There are also maps submitted by citizens.) VPAP also shows the maps, along with some analysis, here.