The Virginia House of Delegates met Thursday to discuss redistricting, but didn't get far. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 30, 2018)
The Virginia House of Delegates convened in August to discuss redistricting, but didn't get far. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 30, 2018)

They came, they argued, they called each other names and didn’t agree on a new map.

Democrats put forward a map to to fix unconstitutionally-drawn voting districts, though lawmakers on both sides called it a political power grab and a hypocritical response to Republican gerrymandering, among other critiques lodged against the proposal during the first day of a special session to fix the districts.

It highlighted the conflict that can arise when politicians are in charge of drawing their own voting maps. Virginia has until Oct. 30 to fix 11 House of Delegates districts the U.S. District Court said were racially gerrymandered, packing too many black voters into the areas to dilute their vote.

The map is currently in the House Privileges and Elections committee, where Republicans and Democrats could hash out details of a mutually favorable plan, though the committee adjourned Thursday without scheduling another meeting.

Even before the committee met, House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the Democrats put forth a map that gave any discussion an “inauspicious start.”

Republicans called Democrats’ map hypocritical because it would turn five current Republican seats more Democratic and strengthen four current Democratic districts.

“We are dealing with the hand that we’ve been dealt,” Democratic Party Caucus Chair Charniele Herring said. “So yes, we took it upon ourselves to start moving because something needed to be done. Before you cast a stone over here, check yourself, please.”

Del. Steve Heretick, a Portsmouth Democrat, called it “gerrymandering in response to gerrymandering” and said he strongly supports an independent, nonpartisan redistricting process.

Advocates for nonpartisan redistricting came away from the first day of the session frustrated, though.

“It is clear to me and to us that the process currently that we’re working under is not working,” Sue Lewis, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, told the Privileges and Elections Committee.

“One side is waiting for relief from the courts, the other side came up with a very hastily drawn map without sharing it until today, pretty much. That doesn’t seem to be an optimum way to do this kind of work.”

Lewis said it seemed obvious that the General Assembly would miss the deadline set by the court to draw new district lines.

“I’m really sorry that you weren’t able to come together and do something a little more meaningful today,” she said.

Citizen group steps in

Redistricting advocates and experts said until Virginia takes the power of redrawing voting maps away from the legislature, legal and political battle will be inevitable.

One Virginia 2021, a redistricting advocacy group that has pushed to change the way Virginia handles redistricting, announced on Thursday a citizen committee that will work on drafting a constitutional amendment to take the power of redrawing voting maps out of the hands of lawmakers.

“It’s clear that Virginia’s current process isn’t working,” said Executive Director Brian Cannon. “Virginia has to do better.”

Wyatt Durrette, a Richmond attorney and former state delegate from Fairfax County, is chairing the committee. He made it clear the group will not be making maps, and he’s not even sure as of now of what kind of process the committee will propose with their amendment.

The group includes college professors, retired lawmakers — including former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli — and attorneys. They held their first meeting at the same time the General Assembly convened for a special session on redistricting.

Durrette, who ran for attorney general twice in the 1970s and governor in the 1980s, said he’s always been aware of gerrymandering, but it’s become a political weapon in Virginia.

“It’s only recently (gerrymandering) has been put on steroids with computer software,” he said. “You can do wonderful, great things with it, but it can also be subversive.”

Swapping which party is in charge of redistricting only gets you a different kind of gerrymandering, said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

“Both parties, frankly, have used race in a convenient way to maximize their gain,” Li said. “Democrats have been perfectly willing to spread out African-Americans. They have incentive to unpack their voters.”

Li pointed to Maryland and Illinois as examples of Democratic gerrymandering. In Maryland, Democratic leaders worked closely with consultants to edge out Republican seats and ensure a blue majority, according to court documents. In Illinois, Democrats redrew maps in 2012 that packed Republican lawmakers into the same district or into left-leaning areas.

Neither of those examples are racial gerrymandering, which is what the court said Virginia did.

Racial gerrymandering has happened more in the South in the last decade than anywhere else, Li said. In addition to Virginia, there have been racial gerrymandering cases in Texas, North Carolina and Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana.

There have been numerous bills and resolutions in Virginia proposed by Democrats and Republicans- to craft a constitutional amendment to establish an independent redistricting commission, define clear standards for redrawing maps and even some to allow voters to choose how to handle redistricting.

According to a Virginia Commonwealth University Wilder school poll, only 16 percent of Virginians wanted the General Assembly in charge of redistricting.