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Virginia ordered to redraw legislative districts that ‘sorted voters’ based on skin color

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Posted at 12:55 PM, Jun 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-27 12:55:02-04

RICHMOND, Va. — A federal court has ordered Virginia to redraw legislative districts for the House of Delegates because the court said 11 districts, including many in Richmond and Petersburg, were racially gerrymandered in 2011, when the maps were originally constructed.

Republican leaders, who lead the effort to redraw Virginia’s House map following the 2010 census, vowed to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case was brought by 12 Virginia voters who alleged that the General Assembly “predominantly relied on race in constructing 12 majority-black Virginia House of Delegates districts” during the redistricting process.  The voters argued that state legislators applied the minimum black voting age population (BVAP) percentage to the 11 districts, which was not necessary for black voters to elect their preferred candidate in those districts therefore diluting voting power in other districts.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld one of the 12 challenged districts in 2015; however, the high court sent the 11 remaining districts back down to the Eastern District to consider whether race was the main factor in drawing lines.  In a 2-1 opinion, the court ruled that it was and ordered the General Assembly to redraw the House map by October 30th in a way that “rectifies the constitutional deficiencies” of the current legislative map.

“Overwhelming evidence in this case shows that, contrary to this constitutional mandate, the state has sorted voters into districts based on the color of their skin.  The legislature made no effort to determine whether the mechanical 55 percent racial threshold was required to comply with the VRA, (Voting Rights Act) and instead arbitrarily applied the same racial mandate to 12 vastly dissimilar districts,” wrote judges Barbara Keenan and Arenda Wright Allen in their majority opinion.

Judge Robert Payne wrote in his dissenting opinion he assesses testimony from House GOP leaders differently and does not believe that the voters lawsuit shows specific evidence of race as the main factor in drawing the 11 challenged districts.

Five of the challenged districts are in the Richmond-Tri Cities region.  Those districts include House districts 63, 69, 70, 71, and 74.  The remaining six districts are in the Hampton Roads region.  Check out VPAP visualization of the House Districts that could be impacted by redrawing legislative maps. 

Redrawing the House maps by October 2018 could have a major impact on 2019 Virginia House elections, and potentially flip the balance of power in the House, where Republicans hold a two-seat advantage after a “blue wave” in 2018 election closed the gap.

Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said he was disappointed with the court’s decision and vowed to appeal.

“These districts were drawn with overwhelming bipartisan support, including with the support of a majority of the African-American members of the House of Delegates,” Cox said.  “We have reviewed the Court’s decision, and we anticipate filing a prompt appeal to the United States Supreme Court. It would be premature to even consider any action by the General Assembly until the Supreme Court speaks on these districts.”

Cox pointed a SCOTUS decision on a case out of Texas, in which a court divided 5-4 along ideological lines upheld several districts in Texas that critics argued intentionally discriminated against minority voters.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) said the ruling was a positive opportunity for Virginia’s legislature.

“My team and I are still reviewing the ruling, but this is good news for Virginia voters. This is an opportunity for us to continue the bipartisanship we’ve built in Richmond, and to draw districts that are fair, nonpartisan, and accurately represent every Virginian, no matter who they are or where they live.”

There is no word yet on when House leaders plan to file their appeal.