RICHMOND, Va. — Ahead of a special session Thursday called by Gov. Ralph Northam, House Democrats released a proposal for a redistricting map in response to a court order.
It’s a form of gerrymandering, which is when voting district lines are drawn in a way to favor one group or party.
“Voters need to know that it’s not an arbitrary process on who they get to vote for,” said Rich Meagher, a politics professor at Randolph-Macon College. “It’s actually a political process that’s controlled by the parties.”
These voting lines are redrawn after every census, which happens every decade. Lawmakers take the population size and divide it by the number of districts. For the House of Delegates, it’s 100. Then they draw lines for each area a representative will oversee with roughly the same number of people in each area.
The Legislative Black Caucus Chair Lamont Bagby described the maps drawn in 2011 as “diluting African American influence in some districts” since black voters were “packed as many as possible into other districts.”
Meagher says some saw this redistricting move as a way to ensure African Americans can have equal representation in the General Assembly.
“The problem is that, that means those African American voters are not in other districts so it could unbalance the map in a lot of ways,” Meagher said.
The court ordered lawmakers in June to redraw the map by Oct. 30. Northam last week called for the special session on August 30 so lawmakers can get to work.
In the meantime, House Speaker Kirk Cox’s office says they will be submitting a full appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on the ruling by next month.
The map was originally drawn in 2011. House Democrats say it’s had a lot of influence over the years and now is the time to address the issue.
“There have been four House of Delegates district races, campaigns and elections since 2011 that have been operating under unconstitutionally drawn districts,” House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said. “Legislators have a responsibility of fixing that problem.”
Democratic Leader Toscano says their map focuses on “compact, contiguous and respects communities of interest.”
“We did a district by district analysis in contrast to what they did and I think that’s one of the the reasons why we believe our map is constitutional where there’s was not,” Toscano said.
Meagher says many courts want redistricting maps to look based on “neutral principles.”
“We want to draw lines based on natural borders, or keeping neighborhoods and towns together… and the courts more and more want legislators to draw these maps in a fair and even way that treats every vote the same,” he added.
With the October deadline approaching, Meagher says it’s in Republicans’ interest to create a new map soon.
“If they don’t do anything, a court could step in and appoint to redraw the districts for them and then the Republicans would have no input at all,” Meagher added.
In 2019, all of the seats in the House of Delegates are up for election. Meagher says new district lines could sway the power of the parties.
“It would not only mean a big difference in them gaining a majority in the House of Delegates, but how big a majority,” he added. “[Democrats] could get a could of extra seats out of it that might give them a bigger advantage, a little more of a cushion in terms of advancing a democratic agenda.”
Virginia House of Delegates Majority Leader Todd Gilbert released a statement Wednesday night:
“We are doing a systematic review of the plan released by Delegates Bagby and Toscano, but after our initial review it’s clear that this is hypocritical partisan power grab that would fail to pass legal muster.
“For almost a decade Democrats have pushed for so-called independent redistricting commissions. Yet when they had the chance to do so, they drew a partisan plan in secret without any input from the public or Republicans.
“Delegate Toscano said explicitly today that no incumbents were paired together. Even a cursory review of the plan shows that is categorically untrue. We have discovered they drew multiple Republican Delegates into the same districts and made five seats currently held by Republicans safe Democratic seats.
“More importantly, we have discovered they failed to comply with their own stated criteria, failed to comply with several provisions of the Court’s order, and consciously used race when drawing their map.
“In 2011, the House passed a bipartisan plan with the support of a majority of the Democratic Caucus and the House’s African-American members after a series of public hearings and committee meetings. The plan was approved by President Obama’s Department of Justice. We will continue to pursue both our request for a stay from the Eastern District Court and our appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
A spokesperson for Speaker Cox’s office says they are reviewing Leader Toscano’s proposal before session beings Thursday. Lawmakers will be gaveling in at noon.