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Virginia Redistricting Committee Settles on New Timeline

Redistricting members sit behind panel
Jose Feliciano, a GOP appointee to the Virginia Redistricting Commission, addresses his colleagues as Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke looks on. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Virginia Redistricting Commission voted on Monday to begin drawing new legislative maps two weeks later than expected in the latest delay in the commonwealth’s redistricting process.

The U.S. Bureau published preliminary data from its 2020 count on Aug. 12. Those numbers were released in a legacy format and will need some finessing and cross-checking by the commission’s GIS consultant before it can be molded into new legislative districts by the 16-member, bipartisan commission. The group voted 14-1, with one abstention, to begin its map-drawing once that is done on August 26. 

The move could open the commission to lawsuits from groups contesting that timeline. Virginia’s Constitution says the body must submit its proposed state Senate and House of Delegate districts to the General Assembly for an up or down vote no more than 45 days “following the receipt of Census data.” Most commission members argued for a legal interpretation that the state only fully “received” data when it was useable for their map-drawing. Still, they said they try to finish their work on state legislative districts early, by Sept. 26, a target that aligns with an Aug. 12 start date.

“I think we’re on firm ground using the 26th and somebody wants to complain about it, let them complain about it,” said Richard Harrell, III, a GOP appointee from South Boston, Va. 

Virginia is the only state with both legislative elections and redistricting this year. The commonwealth’s usual compressed calendar for redistricting caused by its off-year House of Delegates elections became unworkable after the pandemic delayed the work of the Census Bureau by months. Candidates for the House of Delegates are set to run on the current lines this year. It’s unclear if they’ll have to run again on the redrawn districts next year. 

Voters approved the redistricting commission in November. In the past, Virginia’s legislative districts were drawn by lawmakers behind closed doors. 

The 16-member commission is now grappling with the logistics of map-drawing by committee. The process brings numerous questions: whether to hire separate Democratic and Republican map-drawers, or a group from the University of Richmond that Democrats described as neutral; whether to start by using existing maps or to start fresh; whether state lawmakers will draw the maps of the chamber they’re a part of or not; and whether the commission should see the addresses of incumbent lawmakers as they work.

They’re set to vote on those decisions at a meeting Tuesday morning. Some Democratic lawmakers expressed doubts about whether the body could move past steep partisan divides to come up with maps. Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), a supporter of the amendment that created the commission, said she’d heard “water cooler discussion” among lawmakers who doubted it would finish its work.

“There’s no confidence that we’ll even have a special session to even have anything to vote on,” Locke said.

If the commission doesn’t reach agreement on the maps, the Virginia Supreme Court will appoint experts to take over the process. And if the commission does come to an agreement, the maps still need an up or down vote from the General Assembly. 

The Census data released last week shows a more diverse state. Northern Virginia grew faster than other regions, and large swaths of the southwest and southern regions of the commonwealth lost population. Those trends are likely to help Democrats if current voting patterns hold.

I cover state politics for VPM with a focus on accountability journalism. I'm a former member of NPR's 2020 elections collaborative and my work appears regularly on NPR shows. I previously covered politics and culture in Cambodia and lived pre-journalism lives as a tech writer at Google and a program manager for a youth job training program in Alameda County, California. My writing has been featured on BBC, The Washington Monthly, the South China Morning Post, and more.
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