Virginia’s population growth in the last decade was driven almost exclusively by people of color. The possibility that the state’s new legislative maps might include fewer districts — not more — where people of color can sway the outcome of an election is the source of heated tension within the state’s redistricting commission.
Greta Harris, co-chair of Virginia’s new commission, said Thursday that “it feels morally corrupt” that the panel has not coalesced around a set of guidelines for when and how to draw the new districts. Harris spoke of her Black mother and father, who were disenfranchised for much of their lives because of their race.
“I would strongly recommend that the commission give [the map drawers] guidance now, so we don’t waste another day ensuring that people who look like me have to wait to see if their vote is going to matter,” said Harris, a citizen member nominated by Democrats.
The redistricting commission — made up of eight citizens and eight legislators — has been deadlocked for weeks on how to go about creating districts in which Black voters and voters of other minority groups make up the majority of a district or at least an outcome-determining share.
Different map makers, aligned with Democrats and with Republicans, are creating separate proposed House and Senate maps that would have to be melded into single statewide maps for each chamber. The bipartisan commission has until Oct. 10 to reach agreement on new district maps for the House and Senate that would go to the General Assembly for an up or down vote.
Several Republican-allied members on the committee said they generally supported having at least the same number of minority-majority districts, while Democrats have proposed that map drawers seek to create such districts wherever possible — without splitting localities or otherwise sacrificing the compactness of districts.
As of Thursday’s meeting, the commission had arrived only at loose guidance that the map drawers should avoid reducing the ability of voters from racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice as compared with the current legislative maps. The commission did not take a vote on the issue.
An analysis from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project of the initial proposed maps found Wednesday that the House of Delegates maps proposed by Democrat and Republican staffers working for the commission would reduce the number of districts where minority voters have the power to sway the outcome.
The group found that currently, there are 21 districts where voters from a minority group make up at least 30% of a district, the general threshold Princeton academics believe would lead to that community being able to elect a candidate of their choice. The initial maps the commission members are considering would create 20 and 17 such districts.
Such a decline could be considered “retrogression,” and was previously barred under the federal Voting Rights Act, portions of which were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. Virginia law and existing rulings on the issue could still spell legal trouble for the commission if such retrogression is found in the maps, said Helen Brewer, an analyst with Princeton group.
It could also spell political trouble for the commission’s maps. In the House, it was members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus who broadly opposed the constitutional amendment that created the commission on the grounds that it did not include sufficient protections for Virginians of color. Virginians backed the constitutional amendment in a referendum last year.
“We should not take steps backwards when it comes to minority communities,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who is not a member of the redistricting commission. “Those of us who opposed the amendment are not surprised.”
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who sits on the commission, said at Monday’s meeting that unless retrogression issues were addressed, “I cannot see myself moving forward with these maps.”
Some Republicans on the commission, including Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, said they supported instructing the commission’s staff to avoid reducing the number of minority-majority districts in the House and Senate.
They have opposed Democrats’ view that map makers should draw such districts wherever “practicable.” They have also opposed some efforts by Democrats to create “coalition districts,” in which pluralities of voters from different racial minority groups with similar voting preferences are drawn into the same district.
Commissioner Richard Harrell, a citizen member from South Boston who was nominated by Republicans, warned Thursday that “moving people around on the basis of race,” to address retrogression issues could be a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment.
In response to Harris’ comments about the suppression of Black voters, which led to many of the racial gerrymandering protections in the law, Harrell said: “We just can’t go off on an emotional tangent and try to resolve issues from the past. That’s regrettable. That’s the past. We’re dealing with today.”
Hank Chambers, a law professor at the University of Richmond who studies voting issues, said it’s unclear how the commission will resolve its differences in time, given that the panel has less than 20 days to approve maps and send them on to the General Assembly.
On the question of retrogression, Chambers said it’s unclear how the courts would react to a map that includes fewer minority-majority districts. He said different ways to analyze a map for retrogression could yield different outcomes, especially with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on that section of the Voting Rights Act.
“Republicans say we shouldn’t have more than is necessary, while Democrats believe we should have as much as we’re allowed to. That’s the big fight,” Chambers said.
If the commission and General Assembly fail to approve maps, the Virginia Supreme Court will be tasked with drawing the maps instead.
“I think they will follow the law, but just as the party’s legal counsels view the law differently, the Virginia Supreme Court may, too,” he said. “I am not at all convinced that the [Virginia Supreme Court] will be more solicitous of minority voters.”