Virginia may have seen the last of its Redistricting Commission. After multiple perfect ties split along party lines on votes held over the past months, the Commission reached consensus on Wednesday to adjourn until the two co-chairs decide to reconvene the commission. The commission’s one remaining scheduled meeting on Monday and a public hearing for Friday are canceled. The co-chairs said they would reconvene the commission if two commissioners, one from each party, were able to jointly propose a way to redistrict Virginia’s congressional maps.
Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko (R) said, “That would give us kind of a better basis, so if Senator Barker finds someone that likes something also on the other side they can bring it to the co-chairs attention, and then we can call a meeting for us to all come and consider it. But I think the issue is that if we say that there is some place for consensus and that we can still keep working, but is that going to happen at another meeting just like this?”
The Virginia Redistricting Commission hasn’t made a formal decision, but it seems to be moving on after missing a Sunday deadline to complete General Assembly maps. In a virtual meeting Monday, commissioners couldn’t take any votes, but they heard preliminary presentations from the partisan legal teams about redistricting Virginia’s congressional maps. When Co-Chair Mackenzie Babichenko (R) tried to wrap up the meeting with a summary of action items for a meeting later this week, Delegate Les Adams (R-Chatham) questioned Co-Chair Greta Harris (D) status on the commission, launching what Babichencko called an “airing of grievances” from frustrated commissioners.
On Friday, Harris and two other citizen members broke quorum, ending a fraught meeting. At the time, she 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.”
The Virginia Redistricting Commission turned to drafting a House of Delegates map Wednesday, after working on a Senate map Monday. The commission compared Republican and Democratic proposals in southwest Virginia, Southside, and part of Hampton Roads. As with the first look at Senate maps a week ago, the commissioners spent a significant time in southwest Virginia, and weren’t able to keep up with a schedule that would have allowed them to consider all of Hampton Roads or Eastern Virginia Wednesday.
The Virginia Redistricting Commission is scrambling to find more time to finalize General Assembly draft maps ahead of a series of public hearings on October 4-7. On Monday, the commission saw separate sets of draft maps proposed by the two partisan map-drawing teams. On Thursday, they saw a consensus of four Senate district maps from southwest Virginia where both teams’ proposed districts had more than 90 percent of the population in common. But Thursday’s meeting was largely occupied by debates over when to provide political data to map drawers, and about creating additional instructions about creating districts where minorities can control the vote.
As a result, with just three meetings currently scheduled before public hearings, the commission has only considered how to blend the two partisan proposals in the four easiest districts from the Senate, and has not considered how to handle the partisan House proposals.
“We need more time,” Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko (R) said. “I think we’re going to want more time if we’re going to go through and look at all these decisions.”
After a strategy shift, the Virginia Redistricting Commission spent its two meetings this week discussing guidance from legal teams about how to ensure legal compliance with the Voting Rights Act (VRA), and how to consider political subdivisions, communities of interest, and partisan equity. Republican and Democratic legal teams shared different analyses of how to ensure compliance with section two of the VRA, which requires that districts not dilute the voting power of protected minorities. Democratic legal counsel argued that map drawers must create majority-minority districts where possible including through coalitions of minority groups. Republican counsel said that while creating those districts was permissible and even likely to happen, explicitly instructing the mapdrawers to consider race fell outside the legal criteria under which race can be considered, violating the Equal Protection Clause.
The commission debated the issue for hours across two meetings on Monday and Wednesday and defeated three proposals to say the mapdrawers “shall,” “may,” or “shall provide where practicable,” the majority-minority districts.
Senator Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) summarized the debate over the “shall” language Monday: “This motion specifically means that we’re going to get sued one way or the other — one counsel is saying we specifically can’t do this, one counsel is saying we specifically have to do this.”
Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) is the newest addition to the Virginia Redistricting Commission. His predecessor Senator Stephen Newman (R-Bedford) resigned after the commission’s busy schedule for the next two months was announced.
“I know he put a lot of effort, time, and passion into this commission. He resigned shortly after we released our wonderful meetings. So I don’t know if [Co-Chair Greta Harris (D)] and I scared him away or what,” Co-Chair Mackenzie Babichenko (R) joked.
The U.S. Census Bureau released 2020 census data on Friday, but on Monday, the Virginia Redistricting Commission voted 14-1 with one abstention to consider August 26 the date of receipt of census bureau data. That’s due to Census Bureau delays that led to the data being released in an older format that will take vendors two weeks to process.
“This situation is very different from, I think, probably any other redistricting effort that has been done since long before World War II,” Senator George Barker (D-Fairfax) said, noting that law requires delivery of census data within a year of the census date.