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Virginia Redistricting Committee Opts for Partisan Approach to Map-Drawing

People seated along bench with others seated before them
Members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission in a meeting on Monday. They met again on Tuesday to determine how they'll go about drawing new political maps. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Virginia Redistricting Commission voted on Tuesday to use voting patterns and the addresses of current lawmakers as they draw new political maps. The bipartisan commission is also on track to hire two, partisan map-drawing teams after they failed to agree on one neutral group.

Dissenters say the moves undermine promises to voters that the commission would be a break from the partisan gerrymanders of recent decades. Voters approved the creation of the 16-member body in November, moving redistricting authority from the majority parties in the legislature to the hands of a half-citizen, half-lawmaker commission.

Some members argued true neutrality was never the goal of the constitutional amendment.

“We keep wanting to be nonpartisan, but we're not, obviously,” said Richard Harrell, a retired businessman and Republican appointee to the commission. “And you can tell by the amount of discussion that we've been here for week after week.”

The commission answered several key questions about how they’ll work when they begin drawing maps on Aug. 26:

Voting data: A state law passed in 2020 says Virginia’s maps can’t “unduly favor or disfavor any political party.” The commission had to decide how to comply with the law -- whether to use voting data as they draw the maps or check them after. The former option won out.

“In a perfect world, we could sit in a little room with no information and come up with something that is equal in all respects,” Harrell said. “But it isn’t gonna happen.”

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) warned the process would be tantamount to “rigging the process from the beginning.”

“People will probably take some issue with the word 'rigging', but that is how it's going to be perceived if we're sitting with the political data while we draw the maps,” Simon said.

Incumbent lawmakers: In past redistricting efforts, the majority party has used its power to protect its current members and lump members of the opposing party together to diminish their influence. The commission opted to continue considering incumbents' addresses as they draw new maps, swayed in part by arguments that lawmakers on the commission already knew much of this information while citizen members did not.

Partisan map-drawers: The commission failed to find consensus around a neutral group to help them with the technical side of map drawing. Democrats favored the University of Richmond’s Spatial Analysis Lab, which they argued would be a neutral arbiter with experience mapping demographic data. Republicans said the team’s lack of experience with redistricting would be an issue and questioned the neutrality of academics.

Instead, the team is likely to hire two partisan firms -- a solution favored by the GOP and that Democrats said undermined the spirit of cooperation in the group.

“I think this is not what citizens voted for when we started this process through the referendum,” said Greta Harris, co-chair of the commission.

Dividing up work: The commission shot down a plan for splitting up their workload. The tentative plan included two teams -- one focused on the state Senate and one on the House of Delegates -- made up of an equal number of citizens and lawmakers from both parties.

Republicans like Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford) pushed for all lawmakers to be able to work on the maps for their chamber. Newman argued including all of a chamber’s lawmakers in their own maps would be necessary to “land the plane” and get the votes needed to clear both the committee and later, the General Assembly.

Democrats like James Abrenio were dismayed at the prospect of lawmakers outnumbering citizens in the workgroups. “I don't think that the public wanted us to just defer to the legislative elected officials,” he said.

Since they couldn’t come to an agreement on the issue, the full commission will have to draw both maps.

Phillip Thompson, director of the National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission, questioned whether the commission would be able to finish its work if it couldn’t find consensus on a single map-drawer or attorney. If the body fails to produce maps, the Virginia Supreme Court will appoint an expert to draw new districts.

“You need to hurry up so the Supreme Court can get on with hiring whoever they're going to hire to draw these maps because right now, you're headed for stalemate,” Thompson said. 

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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