Shifting its focus, Virginia Redistricting Commission appears unlikely to redraw state legislative maps

Capitol Connection

The Virginia Redistricting Commission meets in Richmond on Aug. 23, 2021. (Snapshot taken from Va. Senate livestream)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Redistricting Commission began discussing its work to redraw the state’s 11 congressional districts Monday, although members couldn’t avoid revisiting the dispute that led them to move on from creating new General Assembly maps.

The 16-member commission was expected to start on new U.S. House districts, but not until submitting state legislative map proposals to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. After coming to another impasse during a turbulent meeting Friday, some on the commission admitted that reaching a compromise on state legislative maps appears to be a lost cause.

“I know there’s a couple of people who are adamant that work can be done. I don’t count myself among that group but certainly there are people and they may want to put that out there, and that’s fine,” Republican citizen co-chair Mackenzie K. Babichenko said during Monday’s virtual meeting.

If the commission fails to submit maps to the General Assembly, either for the congressional districts or the state legislative districts, the Virginia Supreme Court would appoint two experts to create new boundaries for the justices to consider. On Monday, Babichenko said she wanted to ensure the consensus of the commission was heard before any official decision was made about handing the reins over to the court.

Hoping to end gerrymandering in Virginia, voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of a bipartisan commission to be in charge of the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing political maps. Virginia’s Constitution requires the panel to submit its plans for new state legislative maps to the General Assembly “no later than 45 days” after receiving 2020 Census data.

While that deadline passed Sunday, the law triggers a 14-day extension to share map proposals with the state legislature, legal counsel advising the commission said at Monday’s meeting.

Shifting to new congressional maps

No votes were allowed during Monday’s meeting, but the commissioners seemed to acknowledge that coming to an agreement on the state legislative maps was unlikely. Members did agree that a decision on whether to give the Supreme Court notice of its plans would wait until the commission’s next meeting on Thursday.

The redistricting commission instead focused much of its attention Monday on its path forward for redrawing congressional districts. Both legal counsels appointed by the commission said the process would be similar to the one for redrawing districts for the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, but with a few key differences.

The federal government offers tighter constraints for congressional districts than they do for state maps, but both sets of counsel stressed that the task should be simpler due to the large number of people in each of Virginia’s congressional districts compared with a state legislative district.

Another factor that caused issues for drawing new boundaries for the state maps, incumbents’ addresses, should also not be an issue because lawmakers in Congress don’t need to live in the district they represent and none sit on the commission.

Taking a look back

After a several public hearings last week, the commission met Friday to go over new proposed maps for the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. But when it came down to vote on the unfinished maps they would use as a starting point, commissioners remained split along party lines.

Democrats appeared set to agree on using one of the House map proposals from the Republican map-drawers and one of the Senate map proposals from the Democratic map-drawers, stressing that the maps would be used as starting points and that they would eventually be altered. Republican members of the commission didn’t agree to the compromise, arguing the Senate map had just been made available and they needed more time to look the districts over.

Democratic citizen co-chair Greta Harris said she didn’t feel that every person on the panel, split evenly with eight citizen members and eight lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, was sincere about coming to an agreement. Harris and two other Democratic citizen members, James Abrenio and Brandon Hutchins, walked out of the meeting after she addressed the commission.

In email after Friday’s meeting, Harris told 8News that she had not resigned but just walked out of the meeting. Despite saying she didn’t resign and being in Monday’s meeting, one lawmaker on the commission, Del. Les Adams (R-Pittsylvania), openly questioned whether Harris did in fact resign and brought up whether a legal discussion should take place to address the situation.

“I just think it may be important to address the question of the status of the commission, of the status of the membership I suppose, you know, following the demonstrations from last meeting,” Adams said.

“There’s no need for me to try and reinstate myself because I never took myself out of leadership or membership of the commission,” Harris responded. “Certainly you can do whatever you want to from a legal exploration, but from my perspective I never resigned.”

Debate continued over Harris’ status on the commission, with some Republican commissioners saying they don’t believe she resigned but that legal questions that needed answers had emerged. In the end, co-chair Babichenko said the commission’s legal staff would look into the issue and determine whether or not Harris resigned from the commission.

Babichenko added that she found there was a “fundamental lack of trust” when talking with commissioners individually after Friday’s meeting. She urged other members to reach out to those on the commission they may not before to have conservations and learn more about their viewpoints before Thursday’s meeting.

Stay with 8News for updates.

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