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A Blank Slate and Familiar Face as Virginia Redistricting Begins New Maps

People seated
Crixell Matthews
Greta Harris (left) and Mackenzie Babichenko (right), co-chairs of the Virginia Redistricting Commission. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Virginia Redistricting Commission voted on Monday to start with a blank slate when they draw the commonwealth’s new political districts rather than beginning with current lines. 

They’ll conduct their work with the help of two partisan map-drawing firms. On Monday, the commission met those experts for the first time. Republicans picked John Morgan, a Republican who helped GOP lawmakers draw House of Delegates districts in 2011.

Morgan’s previous work was challenged in the courts, leading him to defend one “toilet-bowl” shaped district. In a separate suit in 2019, a federal appeals court ruled that eleven of the House districts unconstitutionally packed Black voters together and ordered them redrawn.

Much has changed since Virginia’s last round of map-drawing, when lawmakers drew political maps behind closed doors. Voters overwhelmingly approved the 16-person, bipartisan commission last November, ending that practice. The commission still includes eight lawmakers as well as eight citizens nominated by senior lawmakers in both parties.

Two lawmakers on the commission — Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford) — spoke in favor of drawing two sets of maps with different starting points: one using Virginia’s current political districts and one without. Newman reminded the group that the new boundaries must eventually pass the General Assembly.

“To me, the best way to do that is to at least take in mind what the current maps are,” Newman said.

Barker’s plan failed in a 7-9 vote, with the commission’s GOP co-chair, Mackenzie Babichenko, and Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) siding with Democrats and Barker siding with the other Republicans.

Some members, like Sean Kumar, questioned the logic of using old lines in the new process. The Democratic appointee from Alexandria said using the existing maps would allow lawmakers to protect their own interests.

“The whole point of this process is people want something fundamentally different,” Kumar said.

In a 12 to 4 vote, the commission ultimately agreed to begin with a blank slate. The group will have access to lawmakers’ current addresses, and state law bans them from drawing lines that “unduly favor” one political party over another.

They’ll do that work with the help of Morgan, the GOP map-maker, and Ken Strasma, the CEO of the Democratic HaystaqDNA. Moon Duchin, a math professor with Tuft University’s MGGG Redistricting Lab, has also offered nonpartisan technical assistance.

Morgan and Strasma pointed to past work from other redistricting commissions as proof they could get along and produce maps. Morgan is currently working with a redistricting commission in Michigan; Strasma worked with Arizona’s commission in 2010. And while Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) called Morgan a “gerrymandering mastermind,” the GOP appointee said he would take a collegial approach to the job.

“I really didn't expect to be here for this round of redistricting,” Morgan said. “So I'm happy to work with all members of the commission as directed.”

The commission has 45 days beginning Aug. 26 to draw new General Assembly districts and submit them to the legislature. In practice, the commission is expected to wait until after it receives a report on racially polarized voting — key for Voting Rights Act compliance — by Aug. 31 to begin drawing districts.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misstated Sen. McDougle's vote on using existing maps. He was one of two Republicans who voted against using current boundaries as a starting point for drawing new maps.

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.