Commission Takes One Step Foward, Two Back


The Virginia Redistricting Commission met for six hours Saturday, but ended the day farther from consensus than when it began. Not only was the Commission unable to agree upon a single plan to redraw state House districts, a single state Senate map morphed into competing GOP and Democratic versions.

Some members expressed optimism about "progress," while some openly wondered if it will be possible for the half Republican, half Democratic to move past a partisan deadlock on issues of fairness and minority representation.

The impasse means that next week citizens who have signed up to speak at public hearings have no specific guide to how the Commission might redraw state legislative districts. Unable to reach a decision, the Commission will direct the public to look at more than a dozen preliminary versions that have been drawn by its consultants.

The 16-member panel has until October 10 to reach a broad consensus on how to redraw the 100 state House and 40 state Senate districts to reflect population changes over the last decade. If they can’t meet that deadline the constitution gives them an additional 14 days to submit plans to the General Assembly, otherwise the maps will be drawn by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Commission approval has to be more than a simple majority. A plan must be endorsed by six of eight citizen members and six of eight legislative members. In addition, three of four House members must agree to the House map and three of four Senators must approve the Senate map. If that were to happen, the maps would go to the General Assembly for an up or down vote.

Following the public hearings, the panel is scheduled to meet next Friday, when it must go from being unable to decide what maps to show the public to a super-majority consensus.

"I’m at a loss as to how to go forward," said Co-Chair Greta Harris. "The thought of next Friday’s meeting turns my stomach.”

On Saturday, the panel again sidestepped fundamental differences in the way the two political parties interpret the federal Voting Rights Act, which Congress passed in the mid-1960s to invalidate state laws that prevented African-Americans from voting and participating in politics.

On race, the biggest sticking point is how to sort Virginia's increasingly diverse population. Democrats favor "opportunity" districts where no single minority has a majority of the voting age population, but the combined non-white and Hispanic population is between 40% and 49%. Democrats say these districts create opportunities for ethnic and racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice.

Republicans note the Voting Rights Act does not require such districts. "Opportunity for what, elect more Democrats?" Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) said Saturday.

In the last week, the Commission spent more than 20 hours pouring over maps, suggesting changes based on commissioners' personal knowledge of communities and from citizen input. No formal votes have been taken on any changes, in part to avoid sharp partisan disputes. But the lack of formal decisions has left mapmakers confused as to how exactly how they should proceed.

Sen., Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) expressed frustration that the latest version of Senate maps do not incorporate changes he said the Commission had agreed upon.

"This is on us," Abrenio told mapmakers, "We are being unclear as a body.”

At one point, Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) captured both the pessimism and optimism felt by fellow commissioners. First, McQuinn said the partisan stalemate seemed preordained by the way the constitutional amendment drafted by redistricting reform advocates.

McQuinn noted that partisanship was baked into the commission's membership (eight Republicans, eight Democrats) and the commission's decision to retain the services of two sets of lawyers and mapmakers (one GOP one Democratic).

"We expected this outcome," McQuinn said, "and anyone who thought it would be anything else, I own the London Bridge and I’ll sell you a piece."

Turning optimistic, McQuinn talked about much she loves to bake, particularly her grandmother's prized pound cake. She said the recipe produces the same wonderful treat nearly every time. But when it doesn't she gets to work improvising and comes up with something that is a crowd pleaser.

She urged her colleagues to persevere and come up with something that meets the public's expectations. "We’ve got to take this cake and rebake it, or at least remake it.”

Oct. 2, 2021

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