Contentious redistricting process down to the wire in Virginia The commission hasn't put forth a single final proposal for new district maps.
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Contentious redistricting process down to the wire in Virginia

The redistricting commission is deadlocked over a number of issues, including how to direct map drawers to approach racial demographics of proposed districts. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Virginia's bipartisan redistricting commission is running out of time to submit new political district maps, after weeks of stalemate and partisan bickering. The commission failed to agree on new maps for the General Assembly's 140 districts, missing an Oct. 10 deadline. They've now turned their attention to redrawing lines for Congressional districts.

In Thursday's meeting, the group reviewed first drafts of two sets of maps for the state's 11 U.S. Congressional districts — one set drawn by a Democratic map drawer and one by a Republican — with the goal of instructing the map drawers to reconcile the two proposals into a single map for public comment next week. (You can view all the proposed maps here.)

The 16-member commission, half of which is comprised of citizens and half politicians and split evenly between the two major parties, found some small degree of agreement in largely maintaining the boundaries of congressional districts 3 and 4, which cover Hampton Roads and eastern parts of the commonwealth. Those district lines have previously been scrutinized by federal courts for compliance with the Voting Rights Act. But they failed to come to a consensus on how map drawers might arrive at a single map proposal for the entire state.

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"So we are not giving the map drawers any additional help," said commission co-chair Greta Harris, who presided over the meeting, after commissioners couldn't offer instructions for how the map drawers should approach combining the Republican and Democratic proposals into one.

The group previously tried to come to consensus on new statewide maps for the 40 state Senate seats and 100 House of Delegates seats, but in a contentious meeting on Oct. 8 concluded they would not be able to come to a consensus on state legislative maps in time for the Oct. 10 deadline. Three Democratic members of the commission, including Harris, walked out in frustration — and in the following meeting, Republican Del. Les Adams suggested that Harris' departure could constitute a legal resignation from the body, a comment that touched off a lengthy and acrimonious back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans.

"Polarization has gotten to the point that not even bipartisan commissions can function anymore," says David Ramadan, an adjunct professor at George Mason University and a former Republican member of the House of Delegates. "It is truly sad that this process is pretty much dead."

That's particularly unfortunate, Ramadan says, given how the commission was created. The constitutional amendment that created it had to pass the General Assembly twice — once under a Republican majority, once under a Democratic majority — and then was approved overwhelmingly by Virginia voters. Prior to the approval of the constitutional amendment, the party in power in the General Assembly controlled the redistricting process.

The commission has until Oct. 24 to offer a proposed map for the congressional districts. That day is also the final deadline for the state legislative maps, which the commission appears to have abandoned. After that date, the work will fall instead to the state's Supreme Court to come up with maps.

Some experts say new congressional maps should be an easier assignment for the group. There are only 11 districts, and the state lawmakers on the commission aren't apportioning their own General Assembly districts, but rather redrawing Congressional district lines. But Thursday's discussion ran aground again on a set of questions that have been plaguing the commission throughout its work.

"It seems to me the big problem is the inability of Virginians to work together across party lines," says Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington. "The same kind of trench warfare politics that we've long seen in Washington is increasingly visible in Virginia."

Race and redistricting

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is what role race should play in how district lines get drawn — a thorny issue with a lot of complex legal and judicial precedent to untangle. Broadly, drawing maps with too much emphasis on racial demographics can violate constitutional rules about equal treatment under the law, but drawing maps without taking race into account at all could run counter to the Voting Rights Act.

Interpreting the legal precedent on race and redistricting has been a major sticking point for the Virginia commission. Democratic lawyers for the group argue that race should be a central consideration in the map-drawing process, and say the commission should prioritize creating so-called "opportunity districts," where voters of color make up about half or a little less than half of the electorate, meaning that the group would play a significant role in deciding election outcomes. Republican lawyers, on the other hand, say the commission will have done its due diligence with respect to race if it draws some majority-Black districts — and they content "opportunity districts" go too far in prioritizing race in drawing lines.

"The Democrats would like it if there are a few districts that would have 45% Black population. That would be great for the Democrats, because then you're not diluting the votes of Democrats --- you're helping Democrats spread out their supporters across a large number of districts," explains Alex Keena, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Gerrymandering the States: Partisanship, Race, and the Transformation of American Federalism. "But the Republicans, you know, maybe they don't see, maybe they would rather have larger majorities in these majority-minority districts."

Keena notes that courts previously ruled Virginia's 2011 House of Delegates and congressional maps racially biased and redrew them.

The group is also grappling with a range of other questions, including where lines should go to preserve "communities of interest" — grouping people in discrete local areas together — and what constitutes "political fairness," or how much existing known partisan slants (or lack thereof) in an area should be a factor in line-drawing.

The latter problem came up in the Thursday discussion on congressional districts.

"I want to be the bad guy and everyone online can yell at me for being too partisan," said Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) on Thursday, in response to the two congressional maps. The basic reason for the objection, he said, was that the maps created six firmly Republican districts and five firmly Democratic districts, despite the fact that Democrats have reliably won statewide contests for the last decade.

"Both of these, unfortunately, are non-starters for me," Simon said.

Beyond hammering out how to apply high-minded ideals of fairness to a very concrete process is another overarching problem: the structure of the commission itself, which includes both citizens and politicians, the latter having a direct stake in some of the maps.

"You have politicians sitting on a commission like that, that's what they bring to the table," says Keena. "They can't divorce themselves from the larger political climate."

Keena notes that structure is also the result of politics, specifically the back-and-forth in the General Assembly at the time the constitutional amendment passed. This is an issue most states wrestle with; only a handful charge independent, non-partisan commissions with tackling redistricting. Instead, partisan lawmakers typically oversee the process, with the result that blue states often favor Democrats when redrawing districts and red states advantage Republicans. Or, as the old saying goes, "Politicians picking their voters, rather than voters picking their politicians."

"We have this outcome because this is the best that could be done, really," he says. "They weren't going to pass a pure citizen commission."

The state Supreme Court's role

The commission has until its final Oct. 24 deadline to salvage at least the congressional maps, and the clock is technically still ticking on a 14-day extension for creating a unified proposal on the General Assembly districts, though the commission seems unlikely to return to the state legislative maps.

In both cases, if the group fails to put forward plans for new maps, the duty will shift to the state's Supreme Court, which will ask two redistricting experts --one from each party— to work together to draw new maps that comply with state and federal law. These so-called "special masters" will have 30 days to turn in a new proposal for the court's review.

"The fact that the Supreme Court is the contingency option, it means that both parties are thinking in the back of their mind, 'Can we get a better deal if the Supreme Court does it?'" says Keena.

Some have speculated that maps approved by justices on the state's highest court, mostly appointed by Republican-controlled General Assembly sessions, could slant in Republicans' favor.

"Maybe they think that they're more likely to get a friendly ruling," Keena speculates. "They certainly don't have an incentive to necessarily give Democrats what they want."

But, even with the court's background, Keena says Democrats may also see the body as advantageous, given the way courts have interpreted legal precedent recently in drawing majority-minority districts. The Virginia court also handed Democrats a redistricting-related win last month, when it ruled that people incarcerated in the state's prisons should count towards population numbers in their hometowns, not where they are incarcerated, a decision which further decreased population numbers in deep-red southwestern Virginia.

Plus, Keena says his research indicates that "overt partisanship" hasn't been the historical norm across the country, even when elected judges have drawn districts.

Representing a growing Northern Virginia

Northern Virginia has grown significantly since the last census a decade ago, which means it stands to gain representation and even more political power in Richmond.

"There will be additional House of Delegate districts and additional Senate districts that will represent people primarily north of the Occoquan," says Farnsworth.

Ramadan also expects district lines to shift in western Fairfax County and eastern Loudoun County. Loudoun's population has increased by almost 35% since 2010.

The current redistricting process will decide district lines for a decade to come, and ultimately, where the lines are drawn influences whether and how community interests are heard by politicians.

"A trajectory of line drawing that tries to keep communities together rather than break them up for partisan purposes can really help create an effective voice for the priorities of that community," Farnsworth says.

He cites Prince William County, where the population has grown 20% since 2010, as an example. The county, which is majority people of color, has been "sliced up to minimize Democratic representation," Farnsworth says. He expects this decade's new map lines to do a better job of keeping communities in the county together.

And there's a chance that the new district maps for the House of Delegates will become relevant sooner than expected. All 100 seats in the chamber are currently up for election in November, but politicians are running in districts based on decade-old maps because of the delays in census results in 2020. But a federal lawsuit brought by a former state Democratic Party chairman argues that using the old maps gives outsize influence in the House to southwestern Virginia, which has lost population, at the expense of fast-growing Northern Virginia. Depending on the success of the lawsuit, House of Delegates members might be forced to run again next year under the new maps.

Plus, the seemingly imminent failure of the redistricting commission to deliver both state legislative and congressional maps runs counter to the will of Virginia voters, who overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment that set up the commission process.

While the outcome of the commission's work so far has been frustrating, Keena says it's still a far cry from the old way, which put Virginia politicians exclusively in charge of map-drawing.

"I can't stress enough how much of an improvement — even though it looks dysfunctional — how much of an improvement it is over one party drawing the maps and basically cramming it down everyone else's throat," he says.

Although there are fewer than 10 days left before the deadline — with not a single map proposal completed yet.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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