Co-chairs Greta Harris (left) and Mackenzie Babichenko (right) preside over an Aug. 3 meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission. (Photo by Ned Oliver)
After giving the public a glimpse of draft maps for Northern Virginia, the new Virginia Redistricting Commission is dropping its region-by-region approach in favor of statewide proposals expected to be unveiled next week.
The commission’s co-chairs announced the procedural change over the weekend and said at a meeting Monday that the chief concern is a lack of time.
“We were concerned around the timing that is statutorily laid out for us, that we were not going to be able to get through the large swathe of land that makes up the Commonwealth of Virginia in the way we were doing it by regions,” said Greta Harris, the body’s Democratic co-chair. “And because when you do one region it has ripple effects to adjacent regions. After counsel consultation, we’ve decided to try something different.”
Under the new plan, the commission’s teams of Democratic and Republican consultants will prepare comprehensive draft maps for the House of Delegates and state Senate, which are expected to be presented next Monday, Sept. 20. The commission is hoping to vote on final maps by Oct. 10.
With no new regional drafts to review Monday, the commission spent most of its time discussing what kind of instructions to give the map-drawers. The meeting ended with little additional clarity on how the commission plans to handle difficult questions of racial representation, political equality and deference to incumbents.
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The agenda for Monday’s meeting indicated the commission would be taking votes on those topics, but almost everything was pushed off for future discussion. The commission will reconvene Wednesday.
The group spent almost two hours Monday discussing the finer points of how the federal Voting Rights Act applies to redistricting. The law was designed largely to preserve Black political power, but the commission got conflicting advice from its partisan lawyers on what it should mean in the map-drawing process.
Democratic lawyer J. Gerald Hebert encouraged the commission to try to create districts that allow racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice wherever possible, either by including enough Black voters or by drawing districts to create a sufficient “coalition” of minority voting blocs.
Republican attorney Brian Tyson told the commission it wasn’t required to do so, and suggested legal trouble could follow if map-drawers were given an explicit directive to prioritize race above other redistricting criteria like compactness and keeping cities, counties and towns together.
Two different motions on the subject — one instructing map-drawers they must seize opportunities to create districts favorable to racial minorities and the other telling map-drawers they are able to do so but not required to — failed after falling short of majority votes.
“So we’re right at the beginning again, with no additional guidance to the map-drawers at this point,” Harris said.
The issue of where race and ethnicity should rank in the hierarchy of priorities re-emerged when the commission opened the floor to public feedback.
Paul Berry, the chairman of the Virginia Latino Advisory Board, said draft maps for Northern Virginia overlook the needs of Latino communities in the region by splitting neighborhoods and potentially jeopardizing the careers of Latino incumbents.
Berry didn’t name specific legislators. But both draft maps draw two members of the Virginia Latino Caucus, Dels. Alfonso Lopez and Patrick Hope, both Democrats from Arlington County, into the same district, according to analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project. Berry also said some draft maps split Arlington’s Columbia Pike community and the town of Herndon in Fairfax County, areas with strong Hispanic populations.
“The Latino community has been diluted in a number of places, unfortunately, with the current draft maps,” said Berry, who specified he was speaking only in his personal capacity and not for the state’s Latino board.
Leaders of the redistricting commission have repeatedly stressed that the draft maps are not final. The commission, redrawing the state’s political districts for the first time after being approved by voters last year, is also sorting through public comments before voting on any proposals.
“We have been building the plane as we’re flying it here,” Harris said. “We know that there will be changes and improvements along the way.”
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