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'This isn't working': Virginia's redistricting commission near failure on congressional map
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'This isn't working': Virginia's redistricting commission near failure on congressional map

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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 Commission implodes, co-chair walks out

Virginia’s redistricting commission, continuing to split along partisan lines ahead of its Monday deadline, appears close to failure on fashioning a map of the state’s congressional districts.

On Wednesday, the commission could not agree on what it is trying to accomplish from a political standpoint. It deadlocked on separate 8-8 party-line votes on whether to seek a map with five Democratic-leaning districts, five Republican-leaning districts and one toss-up district, or a map with five Democratic-leaning districts, four GOP-leaning districts and two highly competitive districts.

The deadlock raised the likelihood that the bipartisan commission of eight citizens and eight legislators, established through a constitutional amendment that Virginia’s voters overwhelmingly backed, will fail to agree on maps of the state’s congressional districts or its legislative districts, leaving both tasks to the state Supreme Court.

After debating multiple congressional configurations for three hours Wednesday, the commission voted not to meet again unless Republican co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko and Democratic co-chair Greta Harris think it would be fruitful. Babichenko suggested that could occur if a Democrat and a Republican work together to fashion a new configuration that seeks to bridge the partisan divide.

The commission faces a Monday deadline to agree on a map of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts that would go to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. The commission would need a supermajority — 12 of its 16 members — in order to approve and advance a map. The law allows the commission a 14-day extension to complete the task, but the panel still cannot agree on a starting point.

Democrats now hold seven of the state’s U.S. House seats to Republicans’ four. A key dividing line for the commission is whether the new map should reflect demographic and political trends that have propelled the Democrats to win every statewide contest since 2009, or whether the map should be more evenly divided, with some districts that could flip either way, depending on the quality of the candidates and the prevailing political winds.

Before Wednesday’s votes along partisan lines, Babichenko, the GOP co-chair, had said of the political fairness issue: “If we can’t agree on that, then we’re kind of dead in the water.”

Following the latest in a series of 8-8 partisan votes, Harris, the Democratic co-chair, suggested that the commission is done.

Harris — who had walked out of the commission’s Oct. 8 meeting when the panel bogged down over legislative districts — said the commission’s structure and its early decisions to retain separate partisan mapmakers and separate partisan lawyers made building consensus nearly impossible.

“I would say we tried and it was a first for the commonwealth of Virginia, but this isn’t working,” Harris said. She said it appears “the bureaucracy and unfortunate partisanship structure of the commission wins” and “we’re done.”

Early in Wednesday’s meeting, Republican and Democratic map drawers offered separate modifications of a unified map of the state’s congressional districts that the commission had considered earlier this week. The proposed revisions left markedly different configurations that did not sway the commission.

Each partisan mapmaker then proposed a separate new statewide configuration. None of the four maps moved the needle.

At one point, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, said, “I’m just trying to keep up here” as the panel considered the four newly proposed configurations five days before its deadline.

“What I see as potentially the problem” is “too much lawyer involvement, too many maps all of a sudden come out” and “the whole system breaks down under the weight,” Stanley said. In that case, he said, “we’re going to find this to be an exercise in futility.”

Ultimately, Harris said, if the commission were to meet Monday and “we’re still going to vote 8-8, we get nowhere.” She said she would rather acknowledge that and say to the people of Virginia, “We are sorry as a commission that we couldn’t do what was hoped.”

Harris added: “I don’t see the point of continuing to come back and go round and round and round. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.”

acain@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6645

Twitter: @AndrewCainRTD

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