Redis­trict­ing vote trig­gers calls for non­par­ti­san process

Gov­er­nor, groups say map-mak­ing should go out­side leg­is­la­ture; GOP says it’s about meet­ing dead­lines, not the process

The Progress-Index Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Bill Atkin­son As­sis­tant ed­i­tor

Thurs­day’s party-line vote to send a new vot­ing map to the Vir­ginia House of Del­e­gates seems to have re-en­er­gized the call for law­mak­ers to out­source redis­trict­ing to a non­par­ti­san en­tity.

Gov. Ralph S. Northam be­moaned the 12-10 House Priv­i­leges & Elec­tions Com­mit­tee vote as fur­ther proof that map­ping needs to be taken out of the leg­is­la­ture’s hands. A del­e­gate who voted in com­mit­tee against the bill said he was do­ing so while main­tain­ing that “we’re not the ones to fix this.” And po­lit­i­cal-ac­tion groups around the state are point­ing out that nei­ther Democrats nor Repub­li­cans are ad­dress­ing the true is­sue for the remap­ping: African Amer­i­can vot­ing strengths.

But a spokesman for House Repub­li­cans said the ques­tion about who

draws the dis­trict lines is not rel­e­vant now as the Gen­eral As­sem­bly races to meet a court-im­posed Oct. 30 dead­line for a new map to be in place.

When the Gen­eral As­sem­bly re­con­venes some­time in Oc­to­ber, it will have be­fore it leg­is­la­tion that re­draws the boundaries for 11 House dis­tricts deemed un­con­sti­tu­tional by a fed­eral court over racial ger­ry­man­der­ing. The 11 dis­tricts, ac­cord­ing to the court, were too heav­ily packed with African Amer­i­can vot­ers and need a do-over.

One of those dis­tricts is the 63rd House Dis­trict, which has Peters­burg as its po­lit­i­cal nu­cleus.

The leg­is­la­tion that passed the com­mit­tee last week would take two and a half wards in Hopewell from the 63rd and re­unite them with the rest of the city in the 62nd Dis­trict. It also strips Prince George precincts from the 63rd, and adds a few more Ch­ester­field County precincts.

That al­most mir­rors what House Democrats en­vi­sioned for a re­drawn 63rd, but this time, it is a Repub­li­can — Del. S. Chris Jones of Suf­folk — spon­sor­ing the bill, and Jones said he pur­posely bor­rowed from that Demo­cratic bill to cre­ate his leg­is­la­tion.

Thurs­day’s po­lit­i­cally charged de­bate be­fore the com­mit­tee vote had Democrats cry­ing foul, dis­put­ing the Repub­li­can claim that their map was drawn with a blind eye to voter skin color.

The fi­nal vote on the bill was straight down party af­fil­i­a­tion — 12 Repub­li­cans yes, 10 Democrats no.

For ad­vo­cates of an apo­lit­i­cal process, such as Brian Can­non, that vote re­in­forces the need for pol­i­tics to be taken out of map-mak­ing.

“Leg­is­la­tors used the same back­room meth­ods and sweet­heart deals for this re­draw that got us into this mess in the first place,” Can­non, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of OneVir­ginia 2021, a bi­par­ti­san group call­ing for a sep­a­rate en­tity to han­dle redis­trict­ing, said in an email Fri­day. “Vir­ginia has squan­dered an op­por­tu­nity to try some­thing bet­ter and do some­thing dif­fer­ent for this spe­cial ses­sion.

“In­stead, the fo­cus of the hear­ing was on who would get re-elected or not. The fo­cus should’ve been on the com­mu­ni­ties — par­tic­u­larly the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity — im­pacted by this re­draw. We need a redis­trict­ing process that pro­tects our com­mu­ni­ties in­stead of in­cum­bents.”

Northam, who called the spe­cial ses­sion for redis­trict­ing, said in a state­ment af­ter the com­mit­tee vote that he was hope­ful some kind of bi­par­ti­san ac­tion would come out, “but I am left dis­ap­pointed by [Thurs­day’s] party-line vote to pass the ma­jor­ity’s par­ti­san map.”

The gov­er­nor and Vir­ginia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark Her­ring have asked a fed­eral court to step in and take over the redis­trict­ing process from the leg­is­la­ture, cit­ing an im­passe in the leg­is­la­ture.

“I’m con­vinced now more than ever that a non­par­ti­san process is nec­es­sary to draw a map that is fair and meets the court’s re­quire­ments,” Northam said in the state­ment.

Can­non ap­plauded the gov­er­nor’s stance. “We are glad to see the gov­er­nor reaf­firm his com­mit­ment to in­de­pen­dent redis­trict­ing re­form,” he said.

House Repub­li­cans, led by Speaker M. Kirk­land Cox of Colo­nial Heights, said in a state­ment that the Oct. 30 dead­line to ap­prove a map is what ev­ery­one should be con­cerned with, not who­ever, in or out of the leg­is­la­ture, draws the map.

“The redis­trict­ing process is a ques­tion for an­other time,” Parker Slay­baugh, a spokesman for Cox, said in the state­ment.

“The court has asked us to come up with a leg­isla­tive so­lu­tion to rem­edy the prob­lems iden­ti­fied by the court. That is the leg­is­la­ture's con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity, and the speaker is hope­ful we can reach a bi­par­ti­san agree­ment be­fore the court's dead­line.”

Mean­while, a spokesman for Northam de­clined to comment about the gov­er­nor’s state­ment pos­si­bly hint­ing that he would veto the leg­is­la­tion if it reaches his desk in its cur­rent form.

“I don't have any­thing to add be­yond the gov­er­nor's state­ment,” Northam com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor Ofi­rah Yh­eskel said in an email.

Bill Atkin­son may be reached at (804) 7225167 or email batkin­son@ progress-in­dex.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @BAtkin­sonpi.

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