Commission Faces Daunting Deadline
Virginia's redistricting commission spent four painstaking hours reviewing proposals for Richmond and Hampton Roads, the epicenter of past Voting Rights Act challenges to legislative district boundaries.
In the end, commissioners seemed no closer to resolving contradictory advice from its two legal teams -- one Republican and one Democratic -- on how to approach the weighty voting rights issues that in past decades forced the courts to intercede.
"We're sort of stuck," said Greta Harris, one of the two citizen co-chairs. "Whether we get done tomorrow is a big question."
The Commission agreed to reconvene Saturday in one last attempt to approve House of Delegates and state Senate maps in time for a series of constitutionally required public hearings that begin Monday. The hearings must take place before the Commission's October 10 deadline.
A Division of Legislative Services attorney's reading of a constitutional amendment that voters approved last year is that the Commission must go into the public hearings with a single map for both the State Senate and House of Delegates. But a Republican attorney hired by the commission disagreed, saying the law doesn't clearly preclude presenting alternative maps to the public.
No final decisions were made, continuing a pattern of deferring on issues fraught with partisan implications and legal complexity.
Race continues to be a major sticking point. The Commission's attorneys have offered contradictory legal advice on how to draw districts that provide African-Americans and other minorities the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. Over the last decade, gentrification has altered the racial makeup of neighborhoods like Church Hill in Richmond that had anchored Black-majority districts. This has created fewer opportunities to draw Black-majority districts in the Richmond area.
Across the state, Democrats are seeking to fashion districts where the combination of any minority race (Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.) is at least 50 percent (known as "coalition" or "minority-majority" districts) and between 40 and 49 percent ("opportunity districts.")
The Commission's Democratic lawyers have advised that the Voting Rights Act envisions creating coalition and opportunity districts. But Republican lawyers say the only districts required by the Voting Rights Act are those where a single minority group composes more than half of the voting age population. The GOP lawyers caution that using race as the "predominant" reason for drawing coalition or opportunity districts is not permissible.
Oct. 1, 2021