As promised last week, Republicans in the House of Delegates put forward a redistricting plan Tuesday that protects incumbents by slightly tilting competitive districts in favor of the party that currently holds the seat.

Republicans said in a release that the new districts were drawn without racial data and described them as a politically neutral approach to addressing a federal court’s finding that the districts were racially gerrymandered and needed to be redrawn.

Democrats immediately criticized the proposal, arguing it replaces racial gerrymandering with partisan gerrymandering.

A House committee will consider the bill when it reconvenes next Thursday.

The Republicans’ map shifts 46,000 black voters between districts, and in three cases, adds black voters to districts the court ruled had been unconstitutionally packed with black voters: 4,590 to the 70th District seat held by Del. Delores McQuinn, 1,794 to the seat 90th District seat held by Del. Joe Lindsey, and 718 to the 71st District Seat held by Del. Jeff Bourne.

At the same time, most of the politically competitive districts remain more-or-less unchanged in terms of the partisan makeup, according to data provided by Republicans.

Any shifts benefited the party that currently holds the seat: House Republicans calculated five competitive seats held by Republicans Roxann Robinson, Riley Ingram, Chris Jones, Chris Stolle and David Yancey become less than one percent more Republican on the new map. Four competitive Democratic seats held by Dawn Adams, Schuyler VanValkenburg, Debra Rodman and Cheryl Turpin became about 1 percent more Democratic.

“While we maintain the constitutionality of the bipartisan plan adopted in 2011 and will continue to pursue our appeal to the Supreme Court, we are introducing a map today to demonstrate to the District Court and the public that you can, in fact, draw a politically-neutral, race-blind remedial map,” said Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, in a statement.

“We have laid out reasonable criteria and are willing to work on this map or a different one, but this map demonstrates clearly what is possible,” Cox said. “If Democrats are serious, they’ll come to the table and engage in good-faith discussions. If they don’t, then it will be clear that they are only interested in a self-serving map to bolster their political standing, whether it’s obtained through the legislative or judicial process.”

Party leaders had criticized a redistricting plan Democrats proposed last month because it added a significant number of Democratic voters to five close districts currently held by Republicans, and, in two cases, drew lawmakers into the same districts.

Democrats responded that it stood to reason that Republicans would lose ground when the gerrymandered maps passed in 2011 were undone.

“House Republicans have repeatedly stated that their map would maintain a similar partisan make-up to the racially gerrymandered 2011 map,” said House Democratic Caucus Executive Director Trevor Southerland in a statement. “We cannot support partisan gerrymandering as a solution to racial gerrymandering. As per usual, it would appear this is just more empty rhetoric from the House Republicans as they continue to attempt to delay implementation of new maps that remedy their racial gerrymander. This map does not solve the constitutional infirmities.”

Southerland also said Republicans’ assertion that their proposed map avoided pairing sitting delegates in the same district is false, and that two Democrats, Marcia Price and Mike Mullin, would be forced to either run against each other, retire or move.

Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesperson for Cox, said mapmakers consulted Price’s address on file with the House Clerk’s Office. “If Del. Price is living at a different address, we are not aware of that,” he said.

A legal analyst at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Ben Williams, said an analysis of the Republicans’ proposal beats the one Democrats put forward in terms of compactness, a measure often used as a proxy for gerrymandering. But he noted neither is as compact as a nonpartisan reform plan would be and, because Republicans saw Democrats’ plan before they drew their own, they “had benchmark scores they knew they had to beat — even if just barely so — in order to say their plan was the more compact plan.”

He called Republicans’ proposal to shift more black voters into three of the districts the court ruled unconstitutional “a very strange move in a plan supposedly remedying a racial gerrymander.”

The project has posted a map that allows visual comparison of the Republicans’ proposed plan alongside Democrats’ proposal and the existing lines.

GOP leaders said their map was drawn by Del. Rob Bell, Charlottesville, with help from demographer John Morgan, who worked on the now-contested 2011 map.

Late last week, in response to a request by Attorney General Mark Herring for the court to immediately take over the redrawing process, the U.S. District Court requested updates from Republicans on the redrawing process. A response was due next week, but the Republicans were working on this map prior to that court decision, Slaybaugh said.

The court declined Herring’s request to take over, but did ask the Democrats and Republicans to decide on an independent expert to draw a map if lawmakers miss their Oct. 30 deadline.

In a Sept. 12 court filing that detailed the party’s efforts to make a new map, Cox said it seemed the Democrats were “playing politics.”

“Our private efforts have been rebuffed numerous times, yet you continue to state publicly that we are not interested in pursuing a remedial plan,” Cox wrote. “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.”

Republicans also expressed concern that if the legislature agreed on a map, it still wouldn’t pass muster for Gov. Ralph Northam, who asked the courts to step in early because he felt lawmakers were at an “impasse.”

“It seems that the governor may be unwilling even to consider a plan the General Assembly passes but, at the same time, wishes to avoid the the political detriment of stating so publicly, even before seeing House leadership’s plan,” attorneys for House Republicans wrote in a Sept. 12 court filing.

The governor’s office will review the proposed map, Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said.

 

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach.
Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass.