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Many maps, no compass: Virginia redistricting panel seeks its path

Discussion over Virginia redistricting continues
Discussion over Virginia redistricting continues

FALLS CHURCH, Va. – With a deadline to draw lines fast approaching, Virginia’s new bipartisan redistricting commission is struggling to break a partisan divide on how to divide the state’s voters into new legislative districts.

The 16-member commission, evenly split between Democratic and Republican appointees, has scrutinized scores of squiggles on multitudes of maps in an effort to come up with new legislative districts for the 100-member House of Delegates and 40-member state Senate to conform with the population shifts reflected in the 2020 census.

But as the commission heads into a Friday meeting just one day before an Oct. 10 deadline, there is no evidence it has achieved any kind of consensus. Indeed, the commission is still working off two sets of maps: one drawn by a Republican map drawer and one drawn by Democrats.

For a brief period of time, the two teams were able to develop a unified draft map for the Senate, but that has been scrapped and the most recent Senate maps are again divided on partisan lines.

The key difference appears to be how to comply with state and federal laws governing minority voting rights.

The Republican maps create a higher number of Black majority districts, which Republicans argue is the clearest way to comply with federal law to prevent disenfranchisement of Black voters.

The Democratic maps take a different approach. Democrats argue that packing too many Black voters into districts dilutes their strength elsewhere. The Democratic maps favor the creation of districts where Black voters are not necessarily a majority, but can create coalitions with whites and other minorities to give them a significant opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.

The result of the Democratic approach is maps that give Democrats a higher partisan advantage, when you look at how the districts have voted in past elections. The Republican approach, unsurprisingly, happens to benefit the GOP.

Del. Marcus Simon, a Democrat from Fairfax County, said a new state voting-rights law, passed over Republican opposition, mandates the creation of so-called coalition districts where practicable.

“We made a legislative choice - I know some of you all didn’t vote for it, but we made a decision,” Simon said. “We knew we were handing off this process to a commission, and we wanted to make sure we had clear guidance for the commission to follow.”

Republican Sen. Ryan McDougle, a Republican from Hanover, said he believes federal law takes precedent, and it favors creation of Black majority districts.

“Just because a Democrat gets elected doesn’t make it a minority district,” McDougle said.

Phillip Thompson, executive director of the National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization, and a former executive director of the Loudoun County NAACP, said it bothers him when so much of the discussion focuses on a perception that Black candidates can’t win unless they are given a district with a Black majority. He said he tends to agree that the bigger problem Black voters face is losing overall political strength when packed into a smaller number of districts.

He noted that Loudoun County elected an African American, Phyllis Randall, to chair its Board of Supervisors even though the county has a relatively small Black population.

“Black candidates have to learn to run races in places” that aren’t obviously hospitable, he said. “If we’re ever going to get to a colorblind society, we’re going to have to start making some hard choices.”

One thing the commission is reviewing closely is the ability of Black voters to form coalitions that can elect the candidate of their choice without an outright majority. Studies look for patterns of “racially polarized voting,” and show that in northern Virginia, there is little evidence of the phenomenon. It’s most prevalent in southside Virginia.

In central Virginia and in Hampton Roads, the study found evidence of racially polarized voting, but not to the extremes found in southside Virginia, so the degree to which a Black majority is necessary to elect a Black candidate is debatable. Central Virginia and Hampton Roads also happen to be the most politically competitive regions in the state, and where most of the map-drawing disputes have been centered.

Making the commission’s task even tougher is the need for a supermajority to approve any map. Approving either a House or a Senate map requires not only the support of 12 of the 16 commissioners, but also approval by six of the eight legislative commissioners and six of the eight citizen commissioners. What’s more, if two of the four appointees from the House of Delegates oppose the House map, it fails even if the other 14 commissioners support it. The same is true of the Senate map.

It’s unclear if missing the Oct. 10 deadline presents a significant problem. The law gives the commission 14 days after “its initial failure to submit a plan to the General Assembly.”

If the commission still can’t submit a plan, or if the General Assembly rejects its plan, the Supreme Court of Virginia will draw the maps.

The Democratic co-chair of the commission, Greta Harris, acknowledged the difficult task the commission faces. At a meeting last week, she urged commissioners to put politics aside and focus on the moral imperative of ensuring fair Black representation.

“I’m at a loss as to how we go forward,” she said. “The thought of what next Friday’s meeting is going to be like turns my stomach right now.”