The Virginia Redistricting Commission spent its Friday meeting discussing drafts of House maps but got bogged down during consideration of greater Hampton Roads and Richmond-area maps.
Although there is general agreement over much of the geographic areas considered, proposals from partisan map drawers differ in more populated areas, leaving the commission deadlocked and unable to move forward. While debating the Richmond-area maps, commissioners broke out into a frustrated discussion of the process.
On Saturday, the commission is scheduled for a final meeting before presenting the proposed House and Senate maps for public consideration — the commission must finalize its House maps, including discussion of Northern Virginia, and finalize its Senate maps in that meeting.
“I don’t know if I want to come back tomorrow, or stay the night. If we’re not going to get anywhere, I just don’t see — and I understand the desire to keep tweaking and working,” Delegate Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) said. “What it seems to have devolved to is we’ve got Republican map makers and lawyers trying to minimize the number of Democratic districts they have to draw, and maximize the number of Republican districts they have to draw. And I could say the same thing here on both sides. I think we kind of have to pick.”
He added, “If you guys are never going to agree to what the Democratic mapmakers make, then I’m not sure I want to come back tomorrow.”
“I disagree completely. Ascribing bad motivations to Republican counsel I don’t think gets us anywhere,” Richard Harrell (R) replied. “I can see why we’re not getting anywhere: because one side wants to continually impugn the other and I just think that we need to try to deal with the realities of the situation.”
Then, Co-Chair Greta Harris (D) said, “There was a structure in the way this commission was put together that made this very challenging, to begin with, with no way to break ties, when we get into a loggerhead. And then we have some self-inflicted wounds in picking two attorneys, two map-drawers, not being willing to do subcommittees to be more effective in how we use our time. And so now we’re down to a day. We still have multiple districts or regions to cover, and we’re sort of stuck. And so whether or not we will get done tomorrow is a big question mark.”
Delegate Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) replied, “Madam Chair, the formation of this commission — I’m not sure that expectation would be anything other than what we are dealing with, so that’s the bottom line.”
Others were more optimistic.
“I think we’re making progress and it is a little bit painful, and it takes us a while to try to work through these things, but I think if you think back over where we were a week-and-a-half ago and where we are now, I think we are in much better shape in terms of moving forward,” Senator George Barker (D-Fairfax) said.
“I just want to note the optimism coming out of the Senate, just how optimistic we are as a body,” Senator Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said.
“Yeah, right,” Harris replied.
One of the main repeated controversies is how to protect the voting strength of minority voters. Legally, in areas determined to have racially polarized voting, the commission is required to consider race, and can opt to create majority-minority districts and districts where coalitions of different groups of minorities could also control the vote. Members from both parties expressed a desire to empower minority voters, but struggled to find consensus and split along party lines, Republicans favoring the Republican map proposals, and Democrats favoring the Democratic proposals. In the Richmond area, both partisan maps also paired incumbents, but the commission proposed that an attempt be made by both map drawers to eliminate the pairings.
At the same time, commissioners were reluctant to take final votes on anything, out of a combined fear of locking in decisions that might have repercussions in the future and fear of a 50-50 deadlock along party lines. As a result, the co-chairs made the final decisions on moving proposals forward into the draft for consideration Saturday. One unresolved question is if the commission will have complete maps to show the public, or if they will have mostly complete maps that leave controversial areas undecided while considering public comment.
“I’m a bit disappointed, because I am a proud Democrat,” James Abrenio (D) said during a debate over the Hampton Roads region. “But I got onto this commission because I was proud that my party essentially ceded power in order to create this commission, and the public agreed and the amendment won that we were going to put trust in this commission in order to put aside politics, put aside partisan fighting, to get rid of gerrymandering.”
Abrenio said that even though the Democratic map-drawers had tried to incorporate Republican proposals, there was still a consensus gap.
“Here we have a situation where it seems like we’re essentially on the same page, 90 percent,” he said. “But even with that we still can’t reach true consensus.”
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