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Pressed for time, redistricting commission will likely present unfinished product to the public next week
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Pressed for time, redistricting commission will likely present unfinished product to the public next week

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Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton (from left), Greta Harris of Richmond and Mackenzie Babichenko of Hanover County attended an August redistricting commission meeting. Harris and Babichenko are the commission’s co-chairs.

Virginia Redistricting: Here's why it matters

Virginia’s redistricting commission might not arrive at finalized district lines for the Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate before next week, when the commission will present the maps to the public for input.

Members of the newly formed 16-member commission, which is evenly split between Republican-allied and Democratic-allied members, have struggled to reach consensus on maps for the state’s legislative chambers based on new census figures. The part-time commission faces a constitutional deadline of Oct. 10 to reach agreement — just over a week away.

On the table are two House maps proposed by Democratic and Republican staff. The maps share some similarities and protect most incumbents, but are different enough products that the commission has not yet been able to marry them into one.

As for the Senate, the commission has appeared to arrive at a single map, though one with significant fault lines, including the number of districts that would protect the voting power of racial minorities.

The commission is expected to take up maps for the House and Senate at a hearing on Saturday in an effort to try to find common ground. Already, some members have ruled out the possibility that a unified product will be presented to the public next week.

Resolving differences between a Republican-made and Democrat-made product has proved tricky for the bipartisan commission of eight citizen members and eight legislators. Struggles to find consensus appeared to reach a boiling point Friday, as progress on the House maps slowed.

“There was a structure in the way this commission was put together that made this challenging to begin with, with no way to break ties when we enter into a loggerhead,” said co-chair Greta Harris, who is allied with Democrats. “Then we have self-inflicted wounds, in picking two attorneys, two map drawers, not being willing to do subcommittees.”

Harris added: “Now we’re down to a day, still have multiple regions to cover, and we’re sort of stuck. Whether we get done tomorrow is a big question mark.”

Saturday is the commission’s last working day before its accomplishments come before the public for comment.

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Next week, from Monday through Thursday, the commission will hold eight hearings to hear comments from anyone in the public about district proposals for each of the state’s eight regions.

Megan Lamb, a legislative aide to the commission, said Friday that her understanding of the legislation and its intent was that the public have an opportunity to comment on a near-finished product before the commission takes a final vote on the maps.

Chris Bartolomucci, an attorney hired by Republican members, disagreed, arguing that the legislation doesn’t lay out such specificity.

The commission has taken few votes over the past week to resolve differences between the maps when they arise, which some members acknowledged was largely out of the belief that the commission would deadlock along party lines.

On Friday, the commission could not arrive at a finished product for the Hampton Roads area. In Hampton Roads, the split between the Republican and Democratic plans is over an additional opportunity district where Black voters could sway the outcome of an election. The Democratic plan has the extra district.

Attorneys said the differences in the area amounted to about 10%, but the commission could not make a call one way or the other, presuming one map would slightly advantage one party over the other without explicitly discussing such differences.

One Republican-allied citizen member said skepticism plagued the process, while a Democratic lawmaker, Del. Marcus Simon of Fairfax, said members of his party were more prone to compromise.

“I don’t see why we’re not getting anywhere because one side wants to continually impugn the other,” said Richard Harrell, the citizen member, who is from South Boston.

The commission will work on the Richmond area and Northern Virginia on Saturday.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project on Friday afternoon gave top “A” marks to Democratic and Republican versions of the House maps, despite acknowledging some differences. Neither map appears to skew partisan, according to its analysis, but the Republican map, it said, suggests that Black voters are being “packed” into districts. Its analysis points to the two districts that cover the central and south parts of Richmond.

“Packing” refers to the practice of overpopulating districts with Black voters, thus concentrating their voting power into a single district.

The Democratic map has two Hispanic opportunity districts and one Asian opportunity district, according to the Princeton group. The Republican map has one Hispanic opportunity district and three Asian opportunity districts.

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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