Legislative panel votes to include incumbents’ addresses in 2021 redistricting data

By: - October 19, 2020 12:01 am

The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A joint General Assembly committee preparing for the 2021 redistricting process voted last week to include incumbent lawmakers’ home addresses in the data that will be used to redraw their districts.

Some lawmakers insisted the move doesn’t necessarily mean the address data will be used to draw lines that protect incumbents. But dissenting legislators said it looked like a step toward the type of incumbent protection that’s happened in the past and some General Assembly members now want to ban.

The Joint Reapportionment Committee, made up of delegates and senators from both chamber’s elections committees, voted 5-3 last week to include the address data. Two Northern Virginia Democrats joined with three Republicans voting yes. Three Democrats, including the chairmen of the two elections committees, voted no.

Though redistricting won’t start until the state receives new U.S. Census data, legislative staffers who handle the technical side are already working to buy mapping software and prep the geospatial data that will be fed into it.

The decision to include incumbents’ addresses comes amid a major anti-gerrymandering push in Virginia, with lawmakers in both parties saying publicly the process should give legislators less power to protect their own interests.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who voted for including addresses, said the information could be particularly helpful for his populous region, where numerous legislators are packed into a small geographic area. Where incumbents live will be a factor in redistricting no matter what, he argued, so it’s better to add it on the front end instead of trying to do it in an unofficial fashion later.

“I believe we’re going to consider that data one way or the other,” Simon said before the vote. “We might as well have accurate data and good data and have it readily available rather than have folks looking at their Google Map trying to compare.”

That data could help map-drawers — whether that’s the General Assembly or a separate, bipartisan commission that voters might approve next month — avoid drawing multiple incumbents’ houses into the same district, potentially forcing them to move, run in another district or simply leave office. If map-drawers use the data, the districts could potentially be drawn based on the locations of up to 140 statehouse incumbents’ homes instead of starting from scratch with no weight given to those who happen to hold the seats now.

Gerrymandering to protect incumbents was not banned in redistricting criteria legislation the General Assembly passed this year that says districts can’t be politically or racially gerrymandered. Because it wasn’t, legislative staffers told the panel it would be on solid legal ground to include the address data.

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, who sponsored the anti-gerrymandering criteria bill, said there was a reason a ban on incumbency protection didn’t make the cut.

“To be honest, it was so that it could pass the Senate,” said Price, who voted against including addresses.

Price asked what rationale could exist for including addresses if not incumbent protection.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, who chaired the Senate elections committee during the 2011 redistricting process, offered an answer.

“The argument for including incumbents’ residences was the belief that we actually are not equal to everybody else,” Howell said. “We have been elected in the past. And that should give us special status. Now whether anybody thinks that way anymore, I don’t know. But that was the thinking back 10 years ago.”

Howell voted to include the addresses.

The three Republicans who voted in favor were Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, and Dels. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania and Chris Runion, R-Rockingham.

The other Democrats against it were Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, chairman of the House elections committee, and Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, chairman of the Senate elections committee.

“That information will be out there,” Deeds said of the address data. “That doesn’t mean that it means anything in terms of the next redistricting.”

On Nov. 3, voters will decide whether the state should create a 16-member commission to handle the 2021 redistricting, a power long reserved for the General Assembly. If that ballot question is rejected, the General Assembly would retain its constitutional power to draw congressional and legislative maps, possibly with assistance from a non-binding, advisory commission.

In either scenario, incumbents’ addresses will be built into the mapping system, but the map-drawers can decide not to use it.

“If they chose not to avoid incumbent pairing,” legislative staffer Meg Lamb said of the possible commission, “then they wouldn’t need to worry about what y’all’s addresses were.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.