RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia redistricting commission made little progress today in their mission to reshape the commonwealth’s electoral landscape and end years of partisan gerrymandering.
The commission set out to resolve two central questions during the session on Aug. 17: what role should political data such as voting trends play in the process? And what expert group should the commission retain to assist them in their task?
The first question was resolved early in the session, with the commission electing to “split the baby,” in the words of Republican Senator Ryan McDougle.
In short, the commission decided that while working groups would be permitted to consider political data in the map-making process, they wouldn’t be required to – essentially pushing off the decision until the process of drawing the lines actually begins.
More contentious was the question of who, exactly, would be called on to draw the maps themselves.
At an earlier meeting, competing proposals from Republican and Democratic counsel were all rejected by their counterparts. Both sides cited concerns that the proposed firms, each with connections to either Democratic or Republican political groups, would draw biased maps.
Defaulting to Partisan Deadlock
Today, Democratic counsel Dr. Kareem Crayton proposed a non-partisan alternative – the University of Richmond’s Spatial Analysis Lab. The lab, according to its website, has done Geographic Information Systems (GIS) studies on topics such as “urban planning, landscape ecology, transboundary geospatial analysis, environmental justice, conservation, climate science.”
Republican members of the commission objected, saying that the lab lacked experience in the specific area of election data.
But Co-Chair Greta Harris said the team is the only viable non-partisan solution, and saw the team’s skills as widely applicable, “Here we have a firm that is Virginia-based and knows the nuances of the commonwealth.”
That proposal died with an 8-8 vote, split evenly down party lines. The commission will likely now be forced to contract two firms – one Republican and one Democratic – and combine their proposals themselves.
That raised fears among some members that the proposed maps would be irreconcilable. If the commission is unable to agree to a proposal before the deadline in November, the Virginia Supreme Court will take over by default.
Harris said that would be a disaster and could undermine Virginians’ confidence in the government. “I think this is not what citizens voted for when this process started with the referendum,” she said.
One concerned citizen, speaking at the end of the session, said he was disappointed in the commission, “What you’ve done is turn this into a political circus again.”
Caught on a Hot Mic
That public feedback might not have much impact though, at least on some members of the commission.
Senator George Barker (D-Fairfax) was caught on a hot mic during the committee’s recess, advising another commission member not to give too much consideration to public comments.
“We can’t just cater to the public,” he said.
“They’re going to bomb us for this,” replied citizen commission member Brandon Hutchins.
But Barker continued, telling Hutchins not to worry because he believed only a “small section” of Virginians actually cared about the redistricting process.
The commission’s next meeting is on Aug. 23 at 8 a.m., with the location still to be determined.