Under Virginia redistricting schedule, lawmakers might vote on new maps at height of election season

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

It’s already too late for Virginia to redraw political districts in time for the 2021 House of Delegates races, but the U.S. Census Bureau’s decision to speed up its delivery of new population data means Virginia lawmakers could be voting on future maps right before the November elections.

Census officials had told states to expect to get the data by late September, but Virginia officials say they now expect to receive it by the second week of August.

Under the newly created Virginia Redistricting Commission’s constitutional timeline, receipt of the data starts a 45-day clock for the commission to submit new legislative maps to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. Once the legislature received the proposed maps, it has 15 days to vote on them.

That means a vote on new state Senate and House of Delegates districts could come at a special session in October, a few weeks before the Nov. 2 election when all 100 House seats will be on the ballot. The ramifications of the process occurring during the peak political season are unclear, but it raises the possibility that some candidates will be voting on maps that make dramatic shifts in the districts they’re running in as they’re making their final pitches to voters.

The redistricting delay could force House members to run in special elections in 2022 since new districts couldn’t be drawn in time for the 2021 cycle. Regardless of any 2022 contests, the full House will be up for election again in 2023.

If the General Assembly rejects maps drawn by the 16-member commission, the panel would have another 14 days to draw up a second proposal. If the legislature refuses the second try, maps would be drawn by experts appointed by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Congressional maps have to be submitted to the legislature no more than 60 days after the census data arrives.

Without any census data in hand to begin its work in earnest, the commission, made up of eight legislators and eight citizen members, is still getting up to speed on the basics. At its second meeting Tuesday, commissioners heard an update on the expected timeline, received training on their duties under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act and heard comments from members of the public.

In meetings over the next few months, the commission is scheduled to get training on the basics of redistricting and map-drawing software and begin planning for public hearings.

The Census Bureau had said the data available in August would be in a different format than the data coming in late September. Meg Lamb, an attorney with the General Assembly’s Division of Legislative Service, told the commission the state shouldn’t have any problem using the data despite the format questions.

“We’ll be good to go,” Lamb said.