Tensions rise as Va. Redistricting Commission begins map-drawing sprint

Partisan debates rise to the fore

By: - August 16, 2021 7:04 pm
Co-chairs Greta Harris (left) and Mackenzie Babichenko (right) preside over an Aug. 3 meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission. (Photo by Ned Oliver)

Co-chairs Greta Harris (left) and Mackenzie Babichenko (right) preside over an Aug. 3 meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission. (Photo by Ned Oliver)

As the new Virginia Redistricting Commission prepares to start drawing new legislative and congressional maps, an increasingly political tone to its deliberations has some members openly speculating about whether the bipartisan body will be able to complete its job.

The 16-member commission met for three hours Monday afternoon to discuss several issues it’s planning to vote on Tuesday morning, including the logistics of who should draw what maps and how much consideration to give to existing political districts and incumbent legislators.

After sharp differences emerged over key aspects of the process, Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, suggested some of her General Assembly colleagues are losing hope the commission will work as advertised.

“I fought very hard for us to have this commission,” Locke said. “But toward the end of our special session, the water-cooler discussion that I heard was that there’s no confidence in this commission to even come up with maps.”

After the arrival of new U.S. Census data last week, the redistricting commission will soon start a 45-day clock to submit new legislative maps to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. The commission, which won final approval from voters last year, is handling that work for the first time. If the commission itself fails to reach consensus on a map proposal or submits maps that don’t pass the legislature, it will fall to the Supreme Court of Virginia to redraw the boundaries.

Virginia’s population grew by 7.9 percent in the last decade, according to census data, slightly ahead of the national average. Mirroring national trends, Virginia saw significant disparities between rural areas and the state’s cities and suburbs. Northern Virginia and the greater Richmond area saw the strongest population increases, while many localities in Southwest and Southside Virginia lost people.

In an early indicator of the political and legal sensitivities surrounding redistricting, a group of state and local officials from Southwest Virginia filed a lawsuit late last week challenging a new redistricting rule that requires prisoners to be counted where they last lived instead of where they’re incarcerated.

The suit, which asks the Supreme Court of Virginia to intervene, claims the prison criteria approved by the General Assembly contradicts the constitutional amendment that gave redistricting power to the commission. That amendment included some rules for how maps should be drawn, and the suit argues the legislature has “deftly clawed back” some control over redistricting by imposing extra rules not found in the state Constitution.

Though the commission got off to a slow start due to delays with the census data, Tuesday’s votes could be the first major indicators of the role politics could play in the new commission and how its work will be seen by voters who wanted change.

As Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, emphasized his desire to give legislative commission members from each General Assembly chamber more input into their own maps, he said there are “a lot of ways” the commission could fail. Those who insist it’s not a priority to build political support among legislators who will vote the maps up or down, he said, seem to be arguing “it didn’t matter whether we landed the plane as long as we flew it in a certain direction.”

At the end of Monday’s meeting, Philip Thompson, the executive director of the National Black Redistricting Organization, accused the commission of not living up to the principles voters seemed to endorse last year when they overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment creating the body.

“This political thing is not going to work,” said Thompson, who advocated for the commission concept last year. “The citizens asked this commission to do something not political.”

Here are some of the questions dividing the commission ahead of its meeting Tuesday morning:

Should each chamber get control of its own maps?

The commission is discussing creating two eight-person subcommittees to oversee House and Senate maps. 

As proposed, each subcommittee would be made up of citizens and legislators from both parties and both chambers. However, Newman and others contend the commission’s four senators should go on the Senate subcommittee and the four delegates should be assigned to the House subcommittee. Because the commission was designed to allow any of the General Assembly’s four caucuses to doom the commission by withholding support, Newman argued, it makes sense to give senators more oversight of Senate maps.

“If we’re not careful here, pulling people away from the only way that this very delicate balance works, we’re making, I think, a pretty big mistake,” Newman said.

Other commission members took issue with that approach, saying the ostensibly apolitical commission shouldn’t assume political considerations will dictate the end result under the new process as they have in the past.

“I know it could fail if you all don’t vote for it here on this commission,” said Greta Harris, a Democratic citizen member who serves as a commission co-chair. “But then it could also fail from a citizen perspective if we aren’t trying our best to present maps that are fair. I don’t think we did a referendum to do the same thing we’ve done in the past.”

Should outside map-drawers be nonpartisan?

The commission already decided to hire two sets of partisan lawyers. But the group is getting conflicting advice on who it should hire for technical map-drawing assistance.

The outside map-drawers would presumably take direction from the subcommittees or the full commission then use redistricting software to tweak district lines accordingly.

One possible partner in that effort is a team of geographic information systems specialists from the University of Richmond, but the lawyers had different views on whether partnering with the university was a good idea.

The commission’s Republican lawyers argued the UR team lacks redistricting experience and could be seen as overly political given the university’s past geographic data projects, some of which have focused on discriminatory redlining practices and their contribution to racial inequity in Richmond.

A Democratic attorney for the commission said he saw no issues with the UR team’s neutrality.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said he’s planning to call a vote Tuesday to work with UR despite the Republican attorneys’ misgivings, which he said sounded more like “political advice” than legal advice.

“I don’t know when civil rights became a partisan issue,” Simon said.

Newman said he didn’t find it helpful for Simon to “lay down a gauntlet,” noting the commission had asked the lawyers to try to reach consensus on hiring map-drawing help and they couldn’t agree.

Both sets of partisan redistricting lawyers said they could select their own partisan map-drawers if the commission chooses to go that route. That idea also drew pushback.

“I voted against having two different legal counsels for the commission and I am not in favor of having two partisan sets of map-drawers,” said Harris.

Should the commission start from scratch?

The starting point for the 2021 redistricting is also up for discussion, with the group scheduled to vote on whether to begin from current district lines, start from scratch or a middle approach involving computer-generated changes to existing districts using new population data.

The commission’s lawyers didn’t strongly endorse one particular approach, but Democratic attorney J. Gerald Hebert said starting from existing maps could help preserve districts that favor Black candidates.

“’In some situations, constituents are satisfied with their current senator and assembly representative and want to maintain that relationship,” Hebert said.

Republican lawyer H. Christopher Bartolomucci said starting from existing maps could give the commission a basic grounding in the state’s political geography, but he said he saw no problems with a blank-slate approach preferred by some commission members.

“I think overwhelmingly the public has expressed a desire to start with clean maps,” said Sean Kumar, a Democratic citizen member.

Should incumbents’ home addresses be considered?

Incumbents’ home addresses are available for use in the state’s redistricting data, but the commission is undecided on whether they’ll get formal consideration in the map-drawing process.

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said redistricting has “been used as a tool against people” in the past, with majorities in the General Assembly drawing multiple political opponents into one district.

“I think we need to make sure we’re not doing that unintentionally here,” Barker said.

Ignoring those addresses as official commission policy, Barker said, could create an information disparity between citizen members and legislators.

“We know basically where everybody lives,” he said.

Redistricting reform advocates have argued drawing maps around legislators’ homes is a classic incumbent protection technique that prioritizes individual political careers over fair maps.

The commission only took one significant vote at Monday’s meeting, choosing to start its 45-day map-drawing window on Aug. 26 as opposed to Aug. 12, the date of the census release.

With sign-off from lawyers, commission members generally agreed that because the census date came in in an old format that required additional work before map-drawing can begin, delaying the formal start date would buy a few more weeks of time.

Under the timeline agreed to Monday, House and Senate maps are due Oct. 10.

Congressional maps are due. Oct. 25.

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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. Contact him at [email protected]