RICHMOND — After attempts to redraw the state’s General Assembly nearly ended with the implosion of the newly formed Virginia Redistricting Commission last week, the panel is anxious to move forward with drawing new congressional districts. Co-Chair Greta Harris on Thursday probed for a way to get a single compromise map to be presented to the public by Monday – as a starting point for further discussion. “I think it is driving us all crazy having multiple maps that we are trying to reconcile in our minds,” Harris said.
At first glance, taking on the new boundaries for the state’s 11 congressional districts isn’t quite as controversial as the failed do-over of the 40 state Senate maps and its 100 counterparts in the House of Delegates. “We are redistricting to send people to Congress, which is different from redistricting an entire legislature,” said Henry Chambers, a Constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “No matter what we do in Virginia, this isn’t going to fundamentally control what happens in Congress. So you can do congressional maps, even if you fail to come up with state maps,” Chambers said.
However, it became clear at Thursday’s three-hour meeting that the same partisanship that led to last week’s impasse threatened to seep into the commission’s work on the congressional maps.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, ripped into proposals by map drawers from both parties that would create six Republican-majority districts and five that are Democratic. “I want to be the bad guy, and everyone can yell at me online for being too partisan, but I just don’t feel like wasting time and beating around the bush,” Simon said. “I appreciate that the idea was something that would get us closer to one map, but I don’t see either one of these as being a good starting point,” he said.
Before a set of maps can be sent to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote, it must be approved by six of the eight legislators and six of the eight citizens on the 16-member panel – a high bar, even for a bipartisan body.
As a starting point, both sides agreed to leave the 3rd and 4th districts mostly unchanged for now in order to not dilute the voting strength of the high Black populations in these areas, which is a requirement under the federal Voting Rights Act.
Commissioners also faced the inevitability of expanding the 9th and westmostern district in the commonwealth currently represented by Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Republican from Salem. Because every region in Southwest and Southside Virginia has seen a flight of residents in the decade since the 2010 census, the district would have to become geographically larger to take in the new target population for each district, which is 785,000. To accomplish this, map drawers propose to draw the city of Roanoke into the 9th.
Republican maps for the 5th, 6th and and 9th districts leave Reps. Bob Good, Ben Cline and Griffith — all Republicans — safely with their own districts.
The 5th would lose the Democratic stronghold of Charlottesville and Albemarle, but it would cut into a small part of Henrico County and take a significant chunk of Chesterfield County in the suburbs of Richmond that increasingly lean Democratic and are currently represented by Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th.
It would also split the city of Lynchburg, moving a small portion — a densely populated Black community — from the 6th into the 5th District.
Under the same proposal, the 6th district would lose an area north of Rockingham but would pick up Charlottesville, Albemarle and Franklin County.
“We solidified three districts in the Southwest and three districts in Northern Virginia,” Harris said. “We are very close, that would leave three districts – the Eastern part and sort of Central and West-Central that we need to figure out.”
In order to expedite the process and get one map to present for public comment, Jose Feliciano, a citizen commissioner from Fredericksburg, inquired whether the map drawers from both parties could collaborate. “What is stopping you guys from working together over the weekend on one map to bring it to us on Monday? Some of the parts from each of your maps look identical,” he said.
But Bryan Tyson, the Republican counsel, and Kareem Crayton, his Democratic colleague, both said that map drawers would require additional guidance and instructions from the commission. “Every decision you make in one part of the map affects another part of the map and it affects the politics of it,” Tyson said.
Crayton added that there are decisions that commissioners will have to grapple with. “You can put us in a room and we can draw maps till next month,” he said. “But in order to get a map that serves your interest, we need to get directions from you all. How do you deal with population loss in the western part of the state? You can do it by going over the mountain or by running up one side of the mountain, to the top of the state. That has effects on what you do in the middle of the state.”
Crayton suggested a compromise map leaving the 3rd and 4th districts unchanged, while adopting the configurations for the 4th and 5th districts from the Republican map drawer and those for the 2nd and 7th districts from his Democratic colleague, “and stitching the rest of the map together.”
Harris asked the commission to consider over the weekend what is “a reasonable goal for the congressional map” to reflect given population changes and recent election results. “The map drawers can do magic and end up with one that we ultimately want. This is probably the most sensible direction we can give them,” Harris said.
The Virginia Redistricting Commission will meet again Monday morning.