RICHMOND — Less than two days before the state’s new legislative maps are due, Friday’s meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission ended abruptly after co-chair Greta Harris walked out, leaving the panel’s constitutionally charged mission in limbo.
“I think our work is done, and what a shame it is,” Harris said. “At this point I really don’t see the need for us to continue.”
The commission had been deadlocked for days over the application of the Voting Rights Act in creating new districts. On Friday morning, the panel’s 16-members – eight legislators and eight citizens – were presented with yet another new Democratic map, but they were unable to agree on a single map for the House or Senate, which they viewed as a starting point toward a compromise. “It’s a very complicated process, with lots of competing criteria, but I would say that we have taken it as far as we can,” a visibly frustrated Harris said.
Earlier in the day, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, had informed commissioners that he would not approve the panel’s work unless the public had an opportunity to review an actual map proposed for commission endorsement. New maps would only be adopted if they survived an up-or-down vote in the state legislature.
Harris threw the towel after the commission failed two party-line votes on the maps. But some commissioners – mostly legislators used to procedural stalemates – urged her to reconsider.
“I know for those who are not elected officials this seems like a hamster wheel, it seems very frustrating. But I’m reminded that when they pick a pope, there are a lot of tie votes before they get to the white smoke, they don’t give up,” said state Sen. Bill Stanley, a Republican from Franklin County and the commission’s westernmost member. “I still believe that this commission has the capability of doing what it is supposed to do,” Stanley said, adding that “ultimately, we got to do something. It may not seem like progress, but there is progress. It may not feel like you would ever break the tie, but I bet you will if you stick to it.”
But some of the citizen members viewed it differently. “This speech from Senator Stanley was inconsistent with what we are seeing. There are no real attempts to compromise,” said Sean Kumar, a Democrat. “I’m not ready to throw the towel either. But let’s not kid ourselves about what’s happening here, this is very partisan,” Kumar said. “It’s one thing to give a speech about how things can work, but we do have limited time, and there’s not been a willingness to really try to start with a mutual starting point for compromise, so I don’t see a way forward.”
After a 20-minute recess, the meeting resumed briefly, and Harris explained that mistrust in her colleagues left her with no choice but to “remove myself” from the commission. “I don’t feel as though all members on the commission are sincere in their willingness to compromise and create fair maps for the commonwealth of Virginia. If I can’t believe the people that I am supposed to work with are true and sincere, regrettably I am done,” she said.
Harris also appealed to the justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia “to take the principles that we discussed at the beginning of this process, the criteria that we had agreed but didn’t fully execute, to look at the law, not only at the federal level but at the state level, and lift up fairness and whatever you do to draw maps.”
A constitutional amendment that Virginia voters ratified last year transferred the General Assembly’s redistricting responsibilities to the newly formed commission. Should the panel’s efforts fail, it will be up to the Virginia Supreme Court to redraw the district lines.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Harris had permanently stepped down from her role as co-chair, but she later confirmed in a text message that she had not resigned. “I just left the meeting,” she said. Three additional commission members excited the room with Harris, leaving the commission with no quorum and no choice but to adjourn.
Harris did not respond to a question asking whether she will attend a meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. on Saturday. For that to happen, Democrats and Republicans would have to agree to the meeting, which, without Harris, would give Republicans the upper hand.
“In theory, they have until Sunday to get it done,” said Henry Chambers, a professor for constitutional law at the University of Richmond School of Law. But they’ll need the agreement of six of eight legislators and six of eight citizens, which doesn’t look good.”
Chambers said that the commission’s structure was flawed to begin with. “It’s a strange one. If you don’t think a General Assembly will come to an agreement over redistricting, what makes you think 75 percent of a commission will? But even if they haven’t agreed on legislative maps, they still have the Congressional maps to do,” Chambers said.
The deadline for those is Oct. 20.
Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at email@example.com.