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States Supreme Court chooses experts to draw Virginia's new political districts

Jahd Khalil
Radio IQ

The Supreme Court of Virginia selected two people to serve as special masters, experts that will redraw political districts after a new independent commission failed to submit maps on time, in an order issued Friday.

The top Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly nominated experts to the Supreme Court earlier this month after the Virginia Redistricting Commission missed its final deadline to submit maps to the General Assembly. A stopgap measure in the constitutional amendment creating the commission gave the court the responsibility in the event of such a failure.

The court chose Bernard Grofman from a list submitted by Democrats, and Sean Trende from Republicans nominees.

Grofman, a political science professor from the University of California-Irvine, will draw maps again. He’s already done that twice in the past decade for Virginia after federal courts threw out Republican-drawn House of Delegates maps and Congressional maps for reducing the voting power of Black voters.

Trende is a senior elections analyst for Real Clear Politics, a conservative-leaning website. He is a doctoral candidate in political science and has served in other redistricting efforts.

The two experts now have 30 days to draw three maps. One for the House of Delegates, one for the State Senate, and one for US Congress.

Having two map drawers hired by opposing political parties contributed significantly to the failure of the Virginia Redistricting Commission. Commissioners were unable to reconcile maps or view on key questions surrounding how new districts protect minority voters and what constitutes political fairness.

The court made it clear that it expected a less partisan, and collaborative process. It disqualified one of the three Democrats nominated after he expressed reservations that it was possible to collaborate on a single version of each map.

All three Republicans nominated by the Senate and House Caucuses were thrown out, too. Thomas Bryan was thrown out for a conflict of interest, since the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus paid him to consult on the party's redistricting effort. The other two were thrown out for unspecified reasons, but the disqualification came after Democrats said they were too partisan.

“Both Republican caucuses have been treating the judicial process as if it's a bipartisan negotiation, and that process ended when the redistricting commission could not reach an agreement,” said Democratic Senator Scott Surovell, who played a role in selecting his party’s nominees.

Republicans put forth Trende’s name in a new list of nominees earlier this week, alongside two employees of the National Demographics Corporation.

The two special masters can’t talk to outside groups or the political parties that nominated them, but can speak with certain court staff and three members of the Division of Legislative Services, who also assisted the commission in its work.

“I think the Supreme Court of Virginia has made very clear that it's going to be a non-partisan process,” Surovell said in an interview recorded before the court's announcement.

The court said any dispute between the two men has to be resolved by “good-faith efforts to find a compromise.” They’ll have to submit three maps by December 19th.

The public and elected officials can submit written feedback to the court by emailing redistricting@vacourts.gov.

An ongoing federal lawsuit could rule that whatever maps Grofman and Trende create will be used for new House of Delegates elections this fall. The plaintiffs allege that this month’s elections were for unfair districts due to population shifts. A filing from the Attorney General in the case is due December 13th.

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

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.
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