Republicans are sending a remedial voting map to the floor of the House of Delegates they say was drawn without considering racial data in a bid to fix 11 racially gerrymandered House districts in the Richmond area and Hampton Roads.
In a statement, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who has veto authority over any map the GOP-controlled General Assembly passes, said he was “disappointed” by the partisan display.
“I’m convinced now more than ever that a nonpartisan process is necessary to draw a map that is fair and meets the court’s requirements,” Northam said.
Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, proposed the bill Wednesday. It kept the 32 affected districts “partisan-neutral,” as Jones called it, meaning no competitive district swayed significantly more or less toward one party.
After tense questioning from some Democrats, the map passed 12-10, with every Democrat on the committee opposing. The legislature has until Oct. 30 to finalize a map before the U.S. District Court redraws the districts. Jones said a month is plenty of time to get the work done.
“This is a starting point,” Jones said during a Privileges and Elections Committee meeting, saying he was open to changes to be made on the House floor. “It’s a work in progress.”
Jones said he used the Democrats’ proposed map, which was killed in the committee, also on a party-line vote, as a template and met with several Democrats from Hampton Roads to craft his proposal: Portsmouth Del. Steve Heretick, Norfolk delegates Matthew James and Jay Jones, Chesapeake Del. Cliff Hayes and Virginia Beach delegates Kelly Fowler and Cheryl Turpin.
Democrats’ opposition centered around the question of whether a map drawn to maintain the political status quo could meet the requirements of a court ruling that said black voters were disenfranchised through racial gerrymandering. Norfolk Del. Joe Lindsey in particular pressed Jones on how a remedial map could be drawn without considering racial data.
“Trying to get to a partisan-neutral and race-blind map is laughable in 2018 especially when African-Americans in Virginia vote above 90 percent for a specific party,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News. “If the other side of the aisle wants to fix that they should work on their messaging and outreach, not try to fix it through racial gerrymandering.”
Jones said the absence of race as a consideration is the very reason it is responsive to the court order. Bristling at the criticism, he called the map put forward by Democrats last month just as politically motivated. That map targeted five Republican-held seats and was called “gerrymandering in response to gerrymandering” by Heretick.
“You went after members to get a political advantage,” Jones told Lindsey during the committee meeting. “I’m very satisfied with my map.”
Del. Mark Sickles, D-Alexandria, said he thought the Democrats’ map did a better job of correcting the gerrymandering, but either way, he wanted to remove legislators from the redistricting process.
“I don’t agree fundamentally that we are the ones that need to fix this,” Sickles said. “We need to get our own self interest out of this.”
One Virginia 2021, a redistricting advocacy group, announced in August that it had created a citizen committee to draft the necessary constitutional amendment to allow an independent commission to take over redistricting.
Jones oversaw the 2011 redistricting that landed the state in hot water with the court, which gave “little weight” to his testimony in the case as he attempted to explain why Republicans split precincts precisely along racial lines. And he said opposes the idea of letting a different body handle redistricting.
“I firmly believe that it should be our responsibility because we’re elected by the people to do that job,” he said.
Mercury staff writer Ned Oliver contributed to this story
UPDATE: This story has been edited to add Gov. Ralph Northam’s remarks.