Republicans say they’ll put forward redistricting plan that protects incumbents

A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 11, 2018)
A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 11, 2018)

House Republicans said in a court filing Wednesday that they’re in the “advanced stages” of preparing a redistricting plan, rebuffing Democratic leaders who have said lawmakers had reached an impasse and called for the courts to take over the process.

In the filing, they write that their goal in any redistricting plan is to avoid pairing any Republican or Democratic incumbents and to avoid substantially altering the partisan makeup of any competitive districts.

The filing offers the first public glimpse of how Republicans, currently holding onto their majority by a single seat, hope to address a court order requiring the General Assembly to redraw 11 districts that federal judges have ruled are racially gerrymandered.

Republicans, who are also appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, heaped criticism last month on a Democratic proposal they said would have made five Republican-held seats safe for Democrats and drawn two GOP delegates out of their districts.

Democrats responded that because black voters had been illegally packed into districts, it stood to reason that packing them back out would negatively impact adjacent Republican districts.

“It is impossible to reverse unconstitutional racial gerrymandering – designed in 2011 to protect the Republican majority – without making the districts more competitive,” said House Democratic Caucus Executive Director Trevor Southerland in a statement Wednesday. “Not only is that simple logic, but it is fair, constitutional, and democratic.”

Likewise, redistricting experts questioned how Republicans expected to comply with the court order without impacting competitive districts.

“This text reads, to me, like the General Assembly is trying to replace a racial gerrymander with a partisan gerrymander,” said Ben Williams, a legal analyst at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which advocates for nonpartisan redistricting.

He said if Republicans go that route, their only option would be to move black voters into adjacent districts that have either strong Democratic margins or strong Republican margins. And in the case of the strong Democratic districts, only those districts not protected by the Voting Rights Act.

“Personally, I have no idea if drawing a map which complies with the court order without improving Dems’ prospects in this part of the state is even possible, but I would bet a lot of money that Speaker Cox, his caucus, and their consultants are doing everything they can right now to figure out how,” Williams said.

Gov. Ralph Northam and Democratic House Majority Leader David Toscano released a statement Friday urging House Majority Leader Kirk Cox to let the court take over, arguing that the debate had stalled and calling it critical to have new districts in place by next year’s elections.

Attorney General Mark Herring took things a step farther Monday, filing a motion alleging that Republicans had made clear they were unwilling to participate in a good faith redistricting effort and asking the court to forgo an Oct. 30 deadline for action and begin drawing the lines themselves.

As evidence, Herring cited two letters that Toscano sent sent to Cox asking him to convene a special session, which Democrats said received no response. Herring also cited the lack of action at the special session Northam convened at the end of last month.

The judges hearing the case responded to Herring’s motion with a court order Tuesday requiring them to provide a detailed account of their redistricting efforts to date.

Enter the Republican’s filing today, in which they pushed back hard at the notion they’ve been unwilling to come to the table and speculation that they’re attempting to run out the clock in an effort to avoid having to put new lines in place by next year’s elections, which would be the last House elections before the legislature redraws the districts following the 2020 Census.

Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, presides over a razor thin Republican majority. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In a sharp letter to Democratic leaders that Republicans attached to their motion, Cox wrote off Democrats’ written overtures as political posturing.

“Nearly 30 years in Virginia politics has taught me that when you want to get something done you pick up the phone and ask for a meeting, but when you want to play politics you send a letter and give it to the press,” he wrote. “The fact that we’ve all done this, myself and my party included, makes it all the more true.

“Over the past 45 days, I have received four letters — three from Delegate Toscano and now one from the governor. All were released to the press moments after I received them.”

Cox said arguments that Republicans never responded ignored private meetings and conversations that followed, which Republicans listed in their response to the court. Cox wrote that the meetings went nowhere:

“Our private efforts have been rebuffed numerous times, yet you continue to state publicly that we are not interested in pursuing a remedial plan. That’s just not true. If you are serious about working on a remedial plan, then let’s work on a remedial plan. I am willing to reconvene the House to continue deliberations on House Bill 7001 and begin working on a genuinely fair remedial map.”

Democrats scoffed, saying Cox hadn’t reached out until after Herring filed his motion asking the court to take over Monday.

“Apparently, the Republicans believe that listing the various dates when they might have had short discussions with Democrats about redistricting constitutes ‘collaborating,’” said Southerland. “In fact, the Republicans have never offered anything concrete about their plan or revisions to the Democratic plan.”

Republicans, meanwhile, said the discussions never went anywhere because Democrats weren’t willing to engage.

Cox said in a statement and in the court filing that the House elections committee will meet Sept. 27 to formally resume redistricting discussions between lawmakers.