How Virginia’s new redistricting commission could still draw maps that protect incumbents

By: - April 27, 2021 12:03 am
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)

Near the end of a training video prepared for the 16 members of the new Virginia Redistricting Commission, a legislative staffer raised a point that got to the heart of why many reformers wanted an independent commission to begin with.

In the past, it was accepted that the General Assembly would look at where incumbent lawmakers lived and avoid drawing maps that put multiple incumbents in the same district, effectively pitting legislators against each other.

Because lawmakers already decided to include incumbents’ home addresses in the data the commission will use to redraw House of Delegates, state Senate and congressional districts later this year, the ostensibly citizen-led commission could also draw maps with an eye toward preventing incumbent vs. incumbent trouble, said Division of Legislative Services attorney Meg Lamb.

“Using incumbent addresses to avoid incumbent pairing is an accepted factor to consider when redistricting and has also been part of the criteria adopted by the committees on privileges and elections in previous cycles,” Lamb said in the video, referring to legislative committees that previously handled redistricting matters. “But we can certainly revisit the issue if you all would like.”

Giving citizens more power in the redistricting process and reducing legislators’ inclinations toward self-preservation were the major selling points for the independent commission voters approved in a ballot referendum last fall, which took constitutional map-drawing power away from the General Assembly and gave it to the commission. But it remains to be seen how strongly the citizen members are willing to challenge the eight legislators on the panel. While the citizen members are trying to learn the redistricting process for the first time, some legislators, particularly Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, had a hand in the 2011 redistricting process that some critics said produced overly incumbent-friendly maps.

The commission won’t be drawing maps until new U.S. Census data arrives in mid-August.

The General Assembly’s Joint Reapportionment Committee voted in October to include incumbents’ addresses in redistricting data, ensuring the possibility it could be taken into account even if voters decided to hand redistricting power to the new commission.

If anyone had strong feelings on the question of how to handle incumbents’ addresses, it wasn’t clear from the brief discussion at Monday’s commission meeting.

Sean Kumar, a Democratic-appointed lawyer from Alexandria, said he felt it would be useful to know the limits of what the commission can do. The decision on how to handle incumbents, he said, could mean the difference between creating “districts from scratch” or choosing to “minorly tweak what’s already there.”

“At some point we’re going to have to choose the criteria we want to use regardless of what the census data is going to show,” Kumar said.

Barker suggested starting first with the rules laid out in state law and the Virginia Constitution, noting that the General Assembly passed a redistricting criteria bill in 2020 that was “much more specific than what we had previously.”

“The challenge we have is to make sure what we are doing what we are supposed to do,” Barker said. “Because otherwise it’s going to end up in court somewhere.” Republicans appointed to the commission were largely silent on the matter during the meeting.

The criteria set by the legislation includes protecting “communities of interest,” a rule meant to ensure communities of people who share common interests aren’t needlessly split among several political districts. Though the bill didn’t include an explicit ban on consideration of incumbents’ addresses, it notes that communities of interest should not be interpreted to include “a community based upon political affiliation or relationship with a political party, elected official or candidate for office.” In other words, an area represented by a particular politician doesn’t become a community of interest just because its residents have that politician in common.

Incumbent protection wouldn’t necessarily be an either-or factor in the process. The commission could take it into account as one of several priorities with more or less weight than other goals like compact districts and protecting the political power of racial and language minorities.

OneVirginia2021, the main advocacy group that pushed for the commission, has not taken a public position on whether it should consider where incumbents live.

Commission members seemed to agree it would be helpful to clearly lay out their criteria before getting deep into the map-drawing process.

“It almost depoliticizes the process if we have our values agreed to before the data comes in,” said Greta Harris, a Richmond affordable housing advocate who serves as co-chair of the commission.

It’s not clear when that decision might be made. The commission is still mostly focused on organization and training. At Monday’s meeting, the body agreed to create two subcommittees, one focused on its finances and one focused on citizen engagement.

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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.