Delegates sitting on the Privileges and Elections Committee passed through a plan Thursday to redraw district maps after a court found the lines divided voters by race.
When the delegates started, there were three proposals on the table. One drafted by Del. Lamont Bagby (D – 74th District), Del. Rob Bell (R – 58th District) and Del. Chris Jones (R – 76th District).
Jones’ proposal, House Bill 7003, was submitted yesterday.
It was initially based off of the Democrat’s map and essentially made additions to it. The lines of 32 districts are redrawn. The main issue, with all of these proposals, was to try to remain “blind to race.” This came after a court ruling that found racial gerrymandering in 11 districts of the 2011 map.
Ernest McGowen, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Richmond, says the problem with this is the voters in these districts don’t have as much of a voice as constituents because they’re all grouped together in one spot.
“If you pack all of the African Americans in one district then the adjacent districts don’t have to care about the issues,” McGowen said.
In other words, if these voters are spread out into different districts then the delegates all have to pay attention to the issues that this group of the population thinks are important.
Jones’ plan passed 12-10, the vote split by party lines. There were issues delegates on the committee found with the proposal. Del. Marcia Price (D – 95th District) brought up concerns about certain districts not changing at all, questioning whether the proposal addressed the court’s order.
“Do you believe that 7003 corrects the situation where the voting power of African Americans in the Commonwealth of Virginia was unconstitutionally diminished?” she asked Jones.
“I would say to the gentle lady, that two of the four districts that are different. Two went up and two went down,” Jones responded.
Jones says that he did have conversations with delegates from the Democratic side to find out how they would want the map changed. He says he did not have the phone number for Price so she was not consulted. Del. Joseph Lindsay (D – 90th District) says he was also not called, and raised a number of concerns in the committee meeting about how the map was drawn as well.
With the Oct. 30 deadline looming, Jones sees the pressure the lawmakers are under to get a proposal through.
“The one overarching theme amongst those who have been discussing this is that it should be a legislative fix. That we should do this and not allow the courts to do it because it’s our job,” Jones said.
But should it be lawmakers jobs to draw these lines?
The New Virginia Majority came forward today before the meeting with a map they drew with a third party consultant. They’ve worked voters within the communities primarily affected by the gerrymandering for over a decade and think the process has gotten too partisan.
“By optimizing for African American voting number and not African American voting power in a fair and just way, you end up having these super-packed districts,” Jamaa Bickley-King, the char and president of NVM, said. “How can you fix a racial gerrymander that targets African Americans without actually including African Americans in the calculus?”
This proposal does not have a sponsor in the House of Delegates and would need one to be considered.
There is also a push by another group to create a constitutional amendment this session, that would make a new process for redistricting that would include independent consultants. In order for this amendment to take effect before the next census, it would have to be approved by the legislature during the upcoming session.
McGowen says gerrymandering has been going on for so long, that the current way things are being done may not show how voters are actually leaning politically.
“There’s this idea now that maybe districts have been so gerrymandered that they don’t reflect the partisan division of the state,” McGowen said. “In the past Virginia has elected Democratic governors, Democratic senators. So there may be an idea that if the balance needs to be tilted in some way it may need to tilt to be a bit more representative of the overall partisan division of the state.”
If there isn’t a map produced by the Oct.30 deadline, the court could appoint an independent party to redraw the map. That decision could swing districts in the 2019 election when all of the House seats are up.
“If you move people in there, where it may shift the balance of power,” McGowen said.
Jones says he reached out to Gov. Ralph Northam and plans to meet with him next week to discuss his proposal.
Gov. Northam said in a statement that he’s “disappointed” with how the process has been going. The full statement reads:
“I was hopeful the General Assembly would be able to engage in a nonpartisan process to satisfy the court’s requirements and to produce a constitutional remedy, but I am left disappointed by today’s party-line vote to pass the majority’s partisan map. I’m convinced now more than ever that a nonpartisan process is necessary to draw a map that is fair and meets the court’s requirements.”
At this time, it’s not clear when lawmakers will all come back to the Capitol to work on this piece of legislation.