Virginia’s redistribution panel is looking for its way
THE CHURCH OF THE FALLS, Virginia. – With a line drawing deadline fast approaching, Virginia’s new bipartisan Redistribution Commission is struggling to break a partisan divide over how to divide state voters into new legislative districts.
The 16-member commission, split evenly between Democrats and appointed Republicans, examined dozens of scribbles across a plethora of maps in a bid to come up with new legislative districts for the 100-member House of Delegates and Senate of the 40-member state to comply with the population shifts reflected in the 2020 census.
But while the committee meets on Friday just a day before the October 10 deadline, there is no evidence that it has reached any consensus. Indeed, the commission is still working on two series of maps: one drawn by a Republican map designer and one drawn by Democrats.
For a brief period, the two teams were able to develop a unified Senate map project, but this was scrapped and more recent Senate maps are again split along partisan lines.
The main difference appears to be how you comply with state and federal laws governing minority voting rights.
Republican maps create a higher number of majority black districts, which Republicans say is the clearest way to comply with federal law to prevent disenfranchisement of black voters.
Democratic cards take a different approach. Democrats argue that lumping too many black voters in one district dilutes their strength elsewhere. Democratic cards promote the creation of constituencies where black voters are not necessarily in the majority, but can build coalitions with whites and other minorities to give them a meaningful opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.
The result of the Democratic approach is cards that give Democrats a higher partisan advantage, when you look at how districts have voted in previous elections. The Republican approach, unsurprisingly, benefits the GOP.
Of the. Marcus Simon, a Democrat from Fairfax County, said a new state voting rights law, passed by the Republican opposition, mandates the creation of coalition districts where possible.
“We made a legislative choice – I know some of you didn’t vote for it, but we made a decision,” Simon said. “We knew we were putting this process to a commission and we wanted to make sure that we had clear guidelines for the commission to follow. “
Republican Senator Ryan McDougle, a Republican from Hanover, said he believes federal law takes precedence and favors the creation of majority black districts.
“Just because a Democrat is elected doesn’t mean he’s a minority district,” McDougle said.
Phillip Thompson, executive director of the National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization and former executive director of the Loudoun County NAACP, said it bothered him that much of the discussion centers on the perception that black candidates cannot win unless they get a predominantly black neighborhood. He said he tends to agree that the biggest problem black voters face is the loss of overall political strength when clustered in a smaller number of districts.
He noted that Loudoun County elected an African American, Phyllis Randall, to chair its supervisory board even though the county has a relatively small black population.
“Black candidates have to learn to run errands in places” which are obviously not hospitable, he said. “If we are ever to enter a color blind society, we will have to start making some tough choices. “
One thing the commission is examining closely is the ability of black voters to form coalitions that can elect any candidate they want without an absolute majority. Studies look for patterns of “racially polarized voting” and show that in northern Virginia, there is little evidence of the phenomenon. It is most common in southern Virginia.
In Central Virginia and Hampton Roads, the study found evidence of a racially polarized vote, but not at the extremes found in southern Virginia, so the degree to which a black majority is required to elect a black candidate is questionable. Central Virginia and Hampton Roads also happen to be the most politically competitive areas in the state and where most of the map-drawing disputes are concentrated.
Making the task of the committee even more difficult is the need for a qualified majority to approve any card. Approval of a House or Senate card requires not only the support of 12 of the 16 commissioners, but also the approval of six of the eight legislative commissioners and six of the eight citizen commissioners. Moreover, if two of the four people appointed by the House of Delegates oppose the House card, it fails even if the other 14 commissioners support it. The same is true for the Senate card.
It is not clear whether missing the October 10 deadline is 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 come up with a plan, or if the General Assembly rejects its plan, the Virginia Supreme Court will draw the cards.
Democratic commission co-chair 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 to ensure fair representation of blacks.
“I don’t know how we are going to move forward,” she said. “The thought of what next Friday’s meeting will be like makes my stomach turn right now.”
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