The General Assembly will reconvene at noon on Thursday, called back to Richmond by Gov. Ralph Northam to address a federal court order requiring lawmakers to redraw 11 House of Delegates districts.
The court ruled in June that the districts were racially gerrymandered to contain a set threshold of black voters, diluting their political influence elsewhere. They gave lawmakers an Oct. 30 deadline to fix them — a process that will almost undoubtedly benefit Democrats at a time when Republicans are hanging onto control of the General Assembly by a razor-thin margin.
But not much is likely to happen, at least this week.
Pretty much everyone agrees at this point that the Thursday session is unlikely to yield any substantial progress.
House Democrats and the governor have drawn up a redistricting plan on their own and will introduce it, but the Republican majority is likely to send it to committee, which is unlikely to act on it anytime soon, said Bob Holsworth, a former VCU political science professor.
House Republicans say they’re focused on appealing the court’s ruling, but it’s unclear whether they’ll get an answer before the deadline.
Speaker Kirk Cox’s office has asked the U.S. Eastern District Court to suspend the Oct. 30 deadline while they appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The district court is unlikely to grant the stay, said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. If they do deny it, Republicans can then make the same request of the Supreme Court, and it’s less clear how they may handle it.
“There could be a bit of a game of chicken as Oct. 30 closes in, especially if the Supreme Court does nothing, which they might,” Tobias said.
A Hail Mary, a stall tactic, or both?
Geoffery Skelley, a political analyst with the UVA Center for Politics, doubts the Supreme Court will side with Republicans because they already sent the case back to the lower court once.
Skelley thinks Republicans could be dragging their feet and waiting for Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, to be confirmed, because he would likely side with them. But that’s a lot to happen before Oct. 30 and Skelley called the outcome unlikely.
Tobias floated another incentive for Republicans to delay: They want the benefit of one more election without redrawn maps, and all they have to do to get that is avoid acting until next June’s primaries.
“It’s pretty far out, but it’s not impossible,” he said.
Cox’s office did not respond to a request for comment and the party’s redistricting lead, Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, was unavailable for an interview, according to his office.
Why the gamesmanship? How much will this really help Democrats?
It depends entirely on how the districts are redrawn.
Black voters overwhelming prefer Democrats, and the court is essentially ordering state lawmakers to spread them back out into neighboring districts, many of which are held by Republicans.
But not all those Republican districts are likely to become competitive, even after redistricting. VPAP has a good look at the districts in play organized by party and the results of the 2017 gubernatorial election.
“The nuance is that some of those districts are more Republican than others,” Holsworth said. “The Republican interest is to try to minimize the impact on districts where their margin is the thinnest.”
That means Republicans have a strong incentive to eventually play ball.
If the legislature can’t reach an agreement by the Oct. 30 deadline, the court takes over and redraws the map.
That’s not a great scenario for Republicans, who would rather have some say if it ultimately comes to that, Holsworth said.
And Republicans have used language leaving the door open to reaching a compromise with Democrats, saying they’ll be reviewing their proposal Thursday to see if it demonstrates a “willingness to engage in a good-faith effort.”
Noting that the session will remain open after Thursday, Holsworth said he wouldn’t be surprised of Republicans ultimately produce their own proposed maps, “but there’s absolutely no urgency to get it done Thursday.”
Skelley agreed: “They’ll have to deal with a new map regardless, they might as well get a more favorable one.”