Redistricting commission reflects on what went wrong after missing map-drawing deadline

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-The Supreme Court of Virginia is expected to step in after a panel of lawmakers and citizens failed to agree on new political maps ahead of a key deadline on Monday.

However, the group hasn’t given up hope just yet.

This is the first time that the Virginia Redistricting Commission–a bipartisan panel–has been charged with crafting new district lines. The process happens every ten years to determine political representation based on residency. It was previously controlled by the majority party in the state legislature.

Voters who approved the constitutional amendment in a ballot referendum last year hoped it would be a big step towards ending gerrymandering but, so far, partisanship has remained a major barrier.

That was on full display on Friday when three Democratic members of the commission stormed out of a meeting, a sign that the panel would not meet Monday’s deadline for approving new General Assembly maps.

“At this point, I don’t feel as though all members of the commission are sincere in their willingness to compromise and create fair maps of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Democratic Co-Chair Greta Harris said before walking out of the room. “Regrettably, I am done so thank you very much for the opportunity to serve but I will remove myself from the commission at this point.”

Harris, who has routinely raised concerns about minority representation being diluted, clarified on Monday that she didn’t intend to resign.

The blow out came after Republicans shot down a last-ditch deal. The proposal was to use the House of Delegates map drawn by GOP consultants and the state Senate map crafted by Democrats.

During a virtual meeting on Monday, Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said he experienced “all of the stages of grief” after the meeting on Friday. He said he felt blind-sided by the new Senate map which was unveiled on Friday morning and “disregarded public comment.”

“I thought Friday of last week was a total sandbag. A total set up,” McDougle said. “That map looked to me to be a very clear political gerrymander.”

“It seemed as though there was a fundamental lack of trust in each other’s motives and each side was not on the offense but on the defense and suspicious,” said Co-Chair Mackenzie Babichenko.

Several members agreed part of the problem was hiring two teams of partisan line-drawers without a plan to merge the maps. Some said that strategy should be abandoned as the commission attempts to move on to Congressional districts. The group will meet in-person on Thursday to decide whether they should start from scratch or build off of existing boundaries, among other things.

In a phone interview, Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) disagreed that having partisan consultants draw separate maps was inherently flawed. He said the commission should continue that moving forward.

Instead, Barker blamed the novelty of the process, delays in getting Census data and decisions to push off substantive disagreements until the end.

“I like the process. I like the fact we have it set up where there are members of the General Assembly involved and if we learn from this it will be easier to get it done more quickly,” Barker said.

Others on the commission have said this bickering is proof that lawmakers need to be taken out of the process entirely in favor of a non-partisan, all-citizen commission that also includes independents.

“I think you need to take politics out or put it in in a way that makes more sense but it did not work this way,” Babichenko said.

For now, it appears the fears some House Democrats raised last year will come to fruition. The conservative-leaning Supreme Court is expected to take over the map-drawing process following the impasse on General Assembly district lines.

However, Barker still has hope that this can be revisited during the 14-day extension allowed under the amendment.

“I think there is still hope for the General Assembly district lines in the next 14 days but I think it is much more likely we will come to an agreement on the congressional maps,” Barker said.

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