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Redistricting Commission Gives Map Instructions, but Deadlocks on Key Questions on Race

Redistricting September 15.jpg
Jahd Khalil
Republican counsel Christopher Bartolomucci, left, speaks with Senator Ryan McDougle, Mackenzie Babichenko, and Delegate Marcus Simon during a break of the Virginia Redistricting Commission's meeting on September 15, 2021.

The Virginia Redistricting Commission will look at long-awaited new political maps on Monday. Wednesday the Commission gave map-drawers a few sets of instructions to draw the maps, but were at a partisan stalemate over directives around districting and race.

Since map drawing is technical, labor-intensive, and requires some expertise the redistricting commission decided to give instructions to map-drawers rather than do it themselves. There are two sets of map drawers, representing firms preferred by the Democrats and Republicans on the commission.

All major directions to firms but one Wednesday had unanimous approval.

After amending working language, the commission told drawers to attempt to keep counties and independent cities together, and not split them among districts.

The commission instructed the firms to not use incumbent addresses or political data when drawing new districts. Then, after maps are drawn, the firms could look at political data to see if the districts are overly tilted towards one party.

The commission also directed the firms to use the Virginia Code’s definition of communities of interest: "A neighborhood or any geographically defined group of people living in an area who share similar social, cultural, and economic interests."

But on a major vote, which commissioners debated for almost all of Monday’s meeting, the commission was deadlocked along partisan lines.

“It seems like we've decided that on the question of giving map drawers specific instructions as to complying with the Voting Rights Act we feel like we're at a hopeless impasse,” said Delegate Marcus Simon, a Democrat. The same issues were discussed in Monday’s meeting, and are outlined by its partisan counsel in meeting materials posted online.

The Democrat-leaning lawyers said if map drawers see possible districts that could preserve the voting power of minorities, they should draw them that way. They also advised that two or more minority groups that made up more than 50% of the population in an area could be considered the same way.

“It's important to think about the federal law, for sure. We have a statement in state law in two different ways that point in the direction of creating these districts, not as a predominant factor where race is concerned, but to consider them in light of the other factors that the commission has thought about.” said Kareem Crayton.

The Republicans’ lawyers said Democrats’ proposed instructions could be unconstitutional if they rely too much on race.

“We all agree the Supreme Court has not addressed this issue yet,” said Bryon Tyson, saying that most of the circuit court decisions have been from the 1990s. “There has obviously been a lot of development in the law since then.... I would say that if the Supreme Court was to face this question today, they would say intentionally drawing a coalition district and using race as the predominant factor to do so would violate the constitution.”

Both lawyers’ advice are meant to help the commission avoid partisan challenges to the maps.

“When we get sued one way or the other, or either considering it or not..” said Commissioner James Abrenio, about considering race. “...I'd rather be on the side that I'm trying to protect the Voting Rights Act and the protection of minorities.I that's just where I come down. If I lose for that, it is what it is”

Previous Republican-drawn maps in Virginia have been thrown out for racial bias.

Minority groups traditionally vote more heavily for Democrats in Virginia.

Abrenio eventually made the motion for map drawers to “where practicable” look for and draw districts that provide “Section 6 of the Virginia Constitution states that 'districts shall provide, where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”

The Democratic motion to give instructions met many Republican defenses. They said the Democrats made procedural mistakes, that it was unnecessary, and that it could be illegal.

“We don't need an add on here because organically it's being done,” said Senator Bill Stanley, a Republican.

Ultimately the commission deadlocked on the proposed instructions. A commission staffer summed up how that tie broke down.

“Party Lines! So, it fails, 8-8.”

A tie meant no action was taken, and each set of lawyers will give each set of map-drawers their own advice on the law.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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