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Splits Over How to Distribute Minority Voters Keeps Producing Deadlock on the Redistricting Commission

Hampton Roads Draft
Virginia Redistricting Commission
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A draft proposal for new political boundaries for the House of Delegates in Hampton Roads. Commissioners are split on how to distribute minority voters' power across new districts.

As a week of long, tedious meetings comes to a close, its unclear whether the Virginia Redistricting Commission will be able to present the public with a single map as planned. The constitution requires that public hearings be held before an October 10th deadline.

Commissioners planned to finish maps by Saturday. That would’ve let them present maps to the public next week in a string of virtual hearings. After incorporating public comment into a final map, they would then vote on a final version to send to the General Assembly by October 10th.

Disagreements on House of Delegates districts in the Richmond Area, and near Hampton Roads are holding things up.

Republicans and the commission’s conservative laweyers floated the idea of presenting the public with two sets of maps. James Abrenio, a Democrat who is not in the General Assembly said he refuses to give the public two sets of maps to consider.

A staff lawyer with the Department of Legislative Services said the constitutional amendment largely said the commission needed to present the public with one map.

Democrats say they have already compromised with Republicans on the new political boundaries.

“I would like to just lock in what we have here. I think we've come as far as we're willing to go on one set. It's a good plan,” he said.

Republicans would rather create more districts with an African-American minority, at the expense of districts where all minorities make up a strong voting bloc.

Minorities other than Black Virginians are a fast-growing part of the population. They tend to vote Democrat, so how they are distributed makes a difference in political power.

Political advantages are also being backed up by differing legal rationales between two sets of lawyers hired by each party.

“From our reading of the Voting Rights Act... you must draw a majority-minority districts if there's racially polarized voting, and if the minority group can then control those elections as a single race majority,” said Byran Tyson, who has represented Republican viewpoints on the commission’s legal counsel.

Racially-polarized voting refers to when there is a large disparity in how different racial groups vote. In Virginia Richmond and its suburbs, Hampton Roads, and Southside have significantly racially-polarized voting blocks.

The Democrat lawyers say the commission also must draw districts where a group of minorities form a similar block, known as a coalition district. Tyson said that is a policy decision that the commission can choose to make.

Criteria the commission has outlined for itself are often in conflict with each other in the Hampton Roads region. In addition to needing to satisfy the Voting Rights Act, geography, declining population, a number of incumbents, and large localities bordering one another complicate a clear way for lines to be drawn and plenty of arguments for commissioners to make.

It's not just the time on the calendar that’s beginning to matter. Meetings this week have lasted hours and hours.

“We've been here for four hours,” said Simon “If you guys are never going to agree to what the democratic mapmakers make, then I'm not sure I even want to come back tomorrow.”

Delegate Delores McQuinn also registered her frustration with the tedious meetings.

Saturday’s meeting could last all day. In addition to the differences over the House of Delegates Districts, there are some decisions that need to be made regarding the State Senate.

Liz White, the executive director of OneVirginia2021, which pushed for an independent commission to draw political boundaries said the organization is hopeful consensus can be reached.

"It's no secret that redistricting is a complicated, technical, oftentimes messy process, but deadlines are great motivators,” she said in a statement.

A list of virtual meetings for public comment by region can be found on thecommission's website.

This report, provided byVirginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from theVirginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.