Poised to Miss First Deadline, Virginia Redistricting Commission Collapses

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The Virginia Redistricting Commission collapsed Friday afternoon while facing a Sunday deadline to complete final maps to present to the General Assembly. The commission failed to break through partisan deadlocks on which drafts to use as a starting point, the latest in weeks of perfect party-line splits in the habitually deadlocked commission. In despair, three citizen members walked out of the meeting breaking quorum and leaving questions about the future of the commission.

Friday’s early debate continued to focus on how to protect minority voters. About four hours after the meeting began, the commission defeated two proposed starting points in two votes along party lines: a Republican motion to start with a Republican draft of the Senate maps, leaving the House for later, and a Democratic motion to start with a Republican House proposal and a Democratic Senate proposal. Then, Co-Chair Greta Harris (D) proposed that the commission give up.

“We’re at an impasse, and I think what voters wanted at the very beginning of this process was this to not be a partisan situation, but it is. And honestly I’ll give kudos to both map drawers. And again, I’ll reiterate that the maps presented from either side do a better job than the current maps that are here. but at this point, I really don’t see a need for us to continue.” She continued, “We gave it a shot as a commission, we tried to come together. It’s a very complicated process. lots of different competing criteria, but I would almost say that we’re done, that we’ve taken it as far as we can. We’ve tried to lift up fairness, we tried to recognize that Virginia is growing, which is a very good thing, and growing primarily in communities of color, and to ensure that their voice was counted and valued, in a state that hasn’t always done that.”

Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) gave the commission a pep talk, and said that Republican commissioners also wanted to make Virginia better in light of its history.

“In 11 years I’ve sat in a Senate that’s been 21-19 one way or the other flipping back and forth. The one thing that that body can do, and has done, and I think Senator Locke would agree with me, and Senator Barker would too, is that we would reach impasses, but we never gave in and we never gave up, and we kept moving forward, and we eventually, eventually got to somewhere,” Stanley said. “We all have things that we would rather be doing, but we have been tasked with this. And for one, I’m not someone that just throws in the towel and gives up because we can’t reach a consensus at this point in time.”

Most members, including several Democrats, said they weren’t ready to quit.  After a recess, a motion to adjourn until the co-chairs called for another meeting failed with most members voting against it. Then, Harris and two other citizen members walked out of the meeting, breaking quorum and ending the meeting.

Harris said, “At this point I don’t feel as though all members on the commission are sincere in their willingness to compromise and to create fair maps for the Commonwealth of Virginia. And so at that point, if I can’t believe that the people I’m supposed to work with are true and sincere, regrettably, I am done. So thank you very much for the opportunity to serve, but I will remove myself from the commission at this point.”

After the meeting, Harris confirmed to The Star that she and the other members had not resigned.

What’s Next

It’s unclear what happens next. The commission had a tentative backup meeting for Saturday October 9, but by Friday evening, the commission’s website said that meeting was canceled. If the commission misses the Sunday deadline, they will have an extra 14 days, until October 24, for the Commission to submit new maps. If the commission fails to meet that deadline, the court will decide what happens, according to material distributed at a meeting in August. The commission is scheduled for two meetings next week on Monday and Thursday.

If used, the extension will compress the 15 days the General Assembly would have to approve the maps down to seven days, with final General Assembly passage due on October 31. Using the extension will also eliminate a chance for the commission to submit new maps if the General Assembly fails to pass the Commission’s first proposal. If the commission fails to meet its second deadline, or the General Assembly does not pass the maps, the Virginia Supreme Court will draw the maps.

After the General Assembly maps, the commission is scheduled to redistrict Virginia’s congressional map, with a first set of maps due to the General Assembly on October 25. However, core structural issues are mixing with partisan divides, creating perpetual stalemates and leaving it unclear how the commission will be more successful with that map.

Before the constitutional amendment was passed last year, the General Assembly drove the redistricting process, leaving it in the hands of the majority party. Some Democrats suggested that Republicans weren’t participating in the commission in good faith, since the Court, perceived to lean conservative, may give Republicans an advantage that they couldn’t expect under Democratic control or from the bipartisan commission. On Friday, several members pleaded for the justices follow the same bipartisan criteria that commission had agreed to.

“My biggest concern about this amendment was the politicization of our courts,” Commissioner James Abrenio (D) said after Harris proposed quitting. “This is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”

Newman Weighs In

Senator Steve Newman (R-Bedford) resigned from the commission in September as the commission added meeting dates. He and some citizen members of the commission clashed over citizen members’ desire to create maps free from influence by incumbents; Newman argued that failing to consider legislators would lead to the maps failing in either the commission or the General Assembly. After Friday’s meeting, Newman published a press release.

“From the first meeting of the newly formed Commission, it became abundantly clear that most of the Democratic citizen members, appointed by those in leadership who opposed the Redistricting Commission bill from the beginning, wanted this process to fail,” Newman said.

He said, “Last month, it became obvious to me that Democratic citizen members just didn’t want this process to work. There was no way to overcome their intransigence. It was disingenuous to release a highly partisan plan for Senate districts – that had no connection to previous Commission or public input – during today’s Commission meeting and expecting that map be advanced.  Leaving the meeting to prevent its continuation only made matters worse.”

He concluded, “If the Democratic citizen members continue with their mission to derail the Commission’s work, I would hope the Supreme Court of Virginia would take the criteria that was agreed upon with a bipartisan consensus over the summer and use it as a solid foundation that will fulfill the intent of the original Constitutional Amendment, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in Virginia last year.”

Advice for 2030

Before the vote to quit, Harris had some advice for those who may draft revisions to Virginia’s redistricting process in 2030.

“I think partisanship sort of seeped into the spirit of this commission, and by the structure, and the way that the General Assembly put it together,” she said.

Harris suggested that there could be a 50-50 split of partisan members, but said that the commission should also include an odd number of independents to act as tie-breakers, and the commission should not include elected officials.

She said, “I do believe that every commissioner needs to be required to take a history class to fully understand the racial background of the state and to know why so many of us find it so hard to lift up communities of color so that their voice can be heard. But unless anyone else has something to say, I think our work is done, and what a shame it is.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network.  Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Virginia State Capitol” by Ken Lund CC BY-SA 2.0.

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