RICHMOND, Va. — The House of Delegates has an October 30 deadline to redraw 11 districts declared unconstitutional by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Region. While House Republicans want to pass their new plan when lawmakers convene October 21, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has threatened to veto the Republican redistricting plan.
“This partisan process should not continue and that the federal court is best positioned to construct a remedial districting plan,” Gov. Northam said in a statement Wednesday. “Given this conviction, I must unequivocally state that I will veto House Bill 7003 should it reach my desk.”
These 11 districts — situated in the greater Richmond and Hampton Roads areas — were racially gerrymandered in 2011, the last time congressional maps were drawn. The panel determined legislators concentrated African-American voters into majority-minority districts.
As they currently stand, the districts deprive specific racial groups political representation, according to the ruling.
Democrats unveiled a plan August 29 to redraw the districts, and Republicans responded with their own on September 19. Each party balked at the others’ proposal, arguing it was drawn with partisan intent.
The redistricting debate stems from a partisan power struggle, according to Bill Oglesby, associate professor of journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It is contrary to human nature for people to want to give up power,” Oglesby said. “Especially when giving up the power to redraw these lines may mean some of them will lose their seats.”
Republicans currently hold a slim 51-49 majority in the House of Delegates after Democrats took 15 seats in the 2017 election. Oglesby said this reality is contributing to an impasse between the parties.
“There is now the slimmest lead for Republicans in the state house. So I think that they see a lot riding on this,” Oglesby said. “They’re extremely worried that, just by virtue of redistricting, they may lose their majority in the state General Assembly.”
Brian Cannon, Executive Director of OneVirginia2021 — the state’s preeminent advocate group for nonpartisan redistricting reform, said he expected the impasse to continue.
If the parties could not reach an agreement on a map, they will turn to a “special master,” or an independent legal expert to draw the districts for them. The parties must each submit a list of “special master” candidates to the court this week.
“It’s a partisan environment right now, people are retreating to their corners,” Cannon said. “We hope in the long run the chaos and uncertainty of who’s going to be in charge in 2021 brings an end to this.”
Both Cannon and Oglesby said the establishment of an independent commission to redraw the lines, beginning after the 2020 census, is a viable solution to gerrymandering. Some Richmond residents agree.
“It’s never possible to take partisan intent out of anything ever. We’re all human, we’re all biased,” legal assistant Megan Bland said. “But I think an independent commission is a step closer than [having] a committee of Republicans or a committee of Democrats just deciding to keep their power base as strong as possible.”
Richmond resident Danielle Smith said she also hoped partisan intent could be removed from the redistricting process. But resident Clay Hester worried that, even with an independent commission, partisan politics are inherent in the redistricting process.
“There’s going to be ‘politicking’ as to who is on that independent commission,” Hester said. “However, there probably is too much politics in the whole districting process as it is now, and I would like to see independent commissions.”
Virginia sits as the fifth worst-gerrymandered state in the U.S., according to geographical analysis conducted by software company Azavea after the 2010 U.S. Census. But the issue of gerrymandered districts does not fall on one party’s shoulders, Oglesby said.
“It’s not purely a Republican issue,” he said. “I am not convinced that if Democrats were to become a majority, that they would necessarily agree on redistricting reform. Because there would probably be a lot of Democrats that say ‘now we’ve got the power, let’s draw the lines to favor us.’ So that’s the problem.”
The House convened last week for a special session, with Republicans presenting a new map based on the Democrats original proposal. But Cannon said the odds of the court drawing the map have not changed.
“Northam isn’t going to sign anything that I’ve seen so far,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com has partnered with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students from the project reported the following story.