Governor, groups say map-making should go outside legislature; GOP says it’s about meeting deadlines, not the process

Thursday’s party-line vote to send a new voting map to the Virginia House of Delegates seems to have re-energized the call for lawmakers to outsource redistricting to a nonpartisan entity.

Gov. Ralph S. Northam bemoaned the 12-10 House Privileges & Elections Committee vote as further proof that mapping needs to be taken out of the legislature’s hands. A delegate who voted in committee against the bill said he was doing so while maintaining that “we’re not the ones to fix this.” And political-action groups around the state are pointing out that neither Democrats nor Republicans are addressing the true issue for the remapping: African American voting strengths.

But a spokesman for House Republicans said the question about who draws the district lines is not relevant now as the General Assembly races to meet a court-imposed Oct. 30 deadline for a new map to be in place.

When the General Assembly reconvenes sometime in October, it will have before it legislation that redraws the boundaries for 11 House districts deemed unconstitutional by a federal court over racial gerrymandering. The 11 districts, according to the court, were too heavily packed with African American voters and need a do-over.

One of those districts is the 63rd House District, which has Petersburg as its political nucleus.

The legislation that passed the committee last week would take two and a half wards in Hopewell from the 63rd and reunite them with the rest of the city in the 62nd District. It also strips Prince George precincts from the 63rd, and adds a few more Chesterfield County precincts. That almost mirrors what House Democrats envisioned for a redrawn 63rd, but this time, it is a Republican — Del. S. Chris Jones of Suffolk — sponsoring the bill, and Jones said he purposely borrowed from that Democratic bill to create his legislation.

Thursday’s politically charged debate before the committee vote had Democrats crying foul, disputing the Republican claim that their map was drawn with a blind eye to voter skin color. The final vote on the bill was straight down party affiliation — 12 Republicans yes, 10 Democrats no.

For advocates of an apolitical process, such as Brian Cannon, that vote reinforces the need for politics to be taken out of map-making.

“Legislators used the same backroom methods and sweetheart deals for this redraw that got us into this mess in the first place,” Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia 2021, a bipartisan group calling for a separate entity to handle redistricting, said in an email Friday. “Virginia has squandered an opportunity to try something better and do something different for this special session.

“Instead, the focus of the hearing was on who would get re-elected or not. The focus should’ve been on the communities — particularly the African American community — impacted by this redraw. We need a redistricting process that protects our communities instead of incumbents.”

Northam, who called the special session for redistricting, said in a statement after the committee vote that he was hopeful some kind of bipartisan action would come out, “but I am left disappointed by [Thursday’s] party-line vote to pass the majority’s partisan map.”

The governor and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring have asked a federal court to step in and take over the redistricting process from the legislature, citing an impasse in the legislature.

“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,” Northam said in the statement.

Cannon applauded the governor’s stance. “We are glad to see the governor reaffirm his commitment to independent redistricting reform,” he said.

House Republicans, led by Speaker M. Kirkland Cox of Colonial Heights, said in a statement that the Oct. 30 deadline to approve a map is what everyone should be concerned with, not whoever, in or out of the legislature, draws the map.

“The redistricting process is a question for another time,” Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Cox, said in the statement. “The court has asked us to come up with a legislative solution to remedy the problems identified by the court. That is the legislature’s constitutional responsibility, and the speaker is hopeful we can reach a bipartisan agreement before the court’s deadline.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Northam declined to comment about the governor’s statement possibly hinting that he would veto the legislation if it reaches his desk in its current form.

“I don’t have anything to add beyond the governor’s statement,” Northam communications director Ofirah Yheskel said in an email.

Bill Atkinson may be reached at (804) 722-5167 or email batkinson@progress-index.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BAtkinsonpi