Congressional maps challenge Virginia redistricting panel

If it again fails to meet a compromise, the task falls to the state Supreme Court

Virginia redistricting commission presents initial map drafts

FALLS CHURCH, Va. – After failing in its effort to draw new maps for General Assembly districts, Virginia’s new bipartisan redistricting commission is facing similar hurdles as it tries to map out congressional lines.

The commission met Monday and reviewed a map that offered a compromise of sorts between those offered by Democratic and Republican consultants hired by the committee.

As drawn, the map would create five safe Democratic districts and five relatively safe Republican districts. The final district, the 2nd District in parts of Hampton Roads, would be very competitive, with some analyses showing a slight GOP edge and others showing a slight Democratic edge.

But in a state where Democrats currently hold seven of the 11 congressional districts, and have won every statewide race since 2009, some Democrats say a 50-50 split in the lines unfairly cheats Democrats of their due.

Del. Marcus Simon, a Democrat from Fairfax, said the map looks like something that could have easily been drawn by Republican partisans and is a non-starter. James Abrenio, a citizen commissioner appointed by Democrats, agreed.

“As it stands now, this is not a map I could vote for,” Abrenio said.

Sen. George Barker, also a Democrat from Fairfax, said the proposed map essentially guts the existing 7th District, currently held by Richmond-area Democrat Abilgail Spanberger. The map moves the 7th District completely out of the Richmond area into more rural areas to the north and west.

Spanberger has won twice, narrowly, in a district that currently leans Republican. The new map would make the district significantly more Republican.

Democrats have argued that since they currently hold a 7-4 edge in House seats, the new map should give their party a similar edge.

It’s not clear, though, that such a map could be drawn even if Republicans accept that premise. The huge Democratic advantage in three districts drawn from the northern Virginia suburbs leaves the the rest of Virginia with a Republican tilt.

“When you’re doing the most logical, compact maps, Republicans gain from what some people think it should be,” Richard Harrell, a citizen commissioner appointed by Republicans, said at a meeting last week. “That’s just the way the population is placed.”

And, unsurprisingly, Republicans do not accept the premise that their current losing streak should consign them to a map that locks in their losses for the next decade.

“Regardless of what some people want to believe, there are Republicans in this state,” Harrell said.

The compromise map under review Tuesday used districts conceived by the Democratic map drawer for the three northern Virginia districts - 8, 10, and 11 - and the Republican map drawer for southwest, southside and the Shenandoah Valley: 9, 5 and 6. It also left in place the existing boundaries for the 3rd and 4th Districts, which have been subject in the past to allegations of racial gerrymandering. The existing boundaries were approved by a federal court, and are currently represented by African American Democrats.

That left only the 1st, 2nd and 7th districts, which happen to currently include two of the state’s most competitive districts. There was little leeway to draw those districts any other way with the other eight districts already in place, the Democratic consultants said.

The commission faced similar disagreements when it tried to draw new maps for the state Senate and House of Delegates. It gave up on trying to find a compromise on those maps after missing a legislative deadline, and those maps will now be drawn by the state Supreme Court.

The commission faces a similar deadline for the congressional maps at the end of the week. If it again fails to meet a compromise, the task again falls to the state Supreme Court.

Some commissioners suggested Monday that was the most likely path.