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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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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