Virginia's redistricting commission to flush 'toilet bowl' district Virginia is in the midst of legislative elections, a race for governor and the redistricting process. All of the political excitement is taking a toll on state redistricting, which is at an impasse.

So far, flushing the 'toilet bowl' district is the cleanest part of Va. redistricting

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SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

As Virginia voters decide on the state's next governor and who controls its legislature, there is another high stakes political process playing out in the commonwealth. A commission is trying to draw new lines for legislative districts. And what it decides will affect future elections and future decisions made by who wins those elections. The commission has a pretty challenging goal - create maps that are fair and not drawn by politicians, like they have been in the past. Right now, the commission has hit a wall. Ben Paviour from member station VPM has the story.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Democratic delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg represents the toilet bowl district in Virginia's House of Delegates. Although, he prefers horseshoe.

SCHUYLER VANVALKENBURG: I do. I think it's more respectful (laughter) of the people that live in the district.

PAVIOUR: VanValkenburg is out on the outer suburban edge of the horseshoe on a balmy Wednesday evening, going door to door to reach voters like Tommy Smith.

TOMMY SMITH: Yeah. We already got you covered.

VANVALKENBURG: Cool. Cool.

SMITH: I actually voted for you a couple of days ago.

VANVALKENBURG: Nice. Love the early vote, too, right?

SMITH: Yeah.

PAVIOUR: VanValkenburg's district was drawn to benefit a Republican incumbent 10 years ago, snaking around the perimeter of Richmond. VanValkenburg flipped the seat in 2017. It was part of an anti-Trump wave that allowed Democrats to win the state legislature in 2019. Now VanValkenburg and other Democrats are playing defense.

VANVALKENBURG: The wins in 2017 and 2019 were narrow wins - right? - because they were gerrymandered. And so that requires a high level of turnout. It requires a high level of voting to keep these seats.

PAVIOUR: Also in the balance, Virginia's executive mansion, with former governor Terry McAuliffe locked in a tight race with Republican Glenn Youngkin. And so it's maybe not surprising partisan tension spilled into Virginia's new bipartisan redistricting committee approved by voters last November.

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GRETA HARRIS: This is a meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission.

PAVIOUR: From the get-go, Republicans and Democrats on the commission struggled to find common ground. They hired their own lawyers and their own mapmakers. At a meeting earlier this month, they couldn't even agree on a starting point credit. Greta Harris is the Democratic co-chair of the commission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: We're at an impasse. And I think what voters wanted at the very beginning of this process was this to not be a partisan situation, but it is.

PAVIOUR: Unlike other states, Virginia's commission also includes lawmakers. Republican State Senator Bill Stanley urged patience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL STANLEY: You know, I'm reminded that when they pick a pope, there's a lot of tied votes before they get to the white smoke. They don't give up.

PAVIOUR: But Harris said it was the Republicans who weren't willing to compromise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: If I can't believe that the people that I'm supposed to work with are true and sincere, regrettably, I am done.

PAVIOUR: With that, Harris and two other Democrats walked out, effectively ending the commission's work on state legislative maps. At a virtual meeting a few days later, they were back. But the bad blood lingered.

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MACKENZIE BABICHENKO: I did talk to some people over the weekend on both sides.

PAVIOUR: Mackenzie Babichenko is the Republican co-chair of the commission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BABICHENKO: It seemed as though there was just a fundamental lack of trust of each other's motives.

PAVIOUR: The group has moved on to trying to draw congressional maps, leaving state maps to Virginia's Supreme Court. It's all a disappointment to voters like Julia Hebner, who supported creating the commission. I caught her at Richmond's lakeside farmers market at another corner of the toilet - the horseshoe. Hebner has lived in the district for 16 years and finds its shape absurd.

JULIA HEBNER: You don't need to follow it closely to see there's something wrong with that.

PAVIOUR: Hebner has only been loosely tracking the commission's infighting. But she blames politicians in the group for its failings and says they should be excluded in the future.

HEBNER: I mean, everybody says this. The politicians shouldn't be choosing their voters. The voters should be choosing the politicians.

PAVIOUR: She is a fan of her delegate, Schuyler VanValkenburg. The Democrat bucked many members of his party who said the commission was doomed to fail. VanValkenburg says it's still a step forward.

VANVALKENBURG: The process we have now is very transparent. It's very open. I think people are seeing how messy redistricting is. Hopefully, it leads to more reform. I would be a fan of more reform.

PAVIOUR: In the past, redistricting happened out of the public eye. Now, VanValkenburg says, Virginians are getting a look at how difficult it can be to draw fair lines, even if they don't always like what they see.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF TINGVALL TRIO'S "BUMERANG")

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