The Virginia Redistricting Commission. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

With just days left on the clock, the Virginia Redistricting Commission once again finds itself in another partisan deadlock, making all but certain that the redrawing of Virginia’s 11 congressionals districts will be kicked up to the state Supreme Court. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, the 16-member panel by a 8-8 party-line vote rejected a motion to ask the public to consider one map with five Democrat-leaning districts, five Republican-leaning districts and one toss-up district. The other map on the table, with five Democrat-leaning districts, four Republican-leaning districts and one toss-up district, failed by the same vote. Democrats currently hold seven U.S. House seats; Republicans hold four.

“This isn’t working,” said Greta Harris, the commission’s Democratic co-chair. “I’d say let the bureaucracy and the unfortunate partisanship of the structure of the commission win. And that we’re done.” Harris then suggested preparing “all the documentation, and all of the citizen comments, all of the maps that had been done, for the Supreme Court.”

But the commission stopped short of an outright declaration of failure. Instead, it approved – in a rare unanimous vote – a motion to adjourn for the day, but to reconvene upon the joint call of the two co-chairs, should a Democratic and a Republican member work together and create one compromise map together that would get bipartisan approval and pass the muster of public opinion. 

Co-Chair MacKenzie Babichenko, a Republican, had proposed this unusual way to proceed. “It’s not an optimal way to move forward, but the only other option is to not move forward,” Babichenko said. “But if people want to hunker down and two people want to come up with something in a bipartisan way, we reserve the ability to call everyone back and vote on something, if we have something to vote on and citizens would have the opportunity to see it.”

Virginia voters last year tasked the VRC with redrawing the General Assembly and congressional districts in the commonwealth to reflect the results of the 2020 national census by ratifying a constitutional amendment that transfers the General Assembly’s redistricting responsibility to the newly created commission. Virginians wanted to “end gerrymandering, and wanted fair maps for the commonwealth,” said state Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, one of the eight legislators on the panel. “And that’s not what we have given them. What we are showing them is that we are more interested in partisanship than we are in giving them fair maps,” Locke said.

Almost two weeks ago, the commission failed to agree on a single map for the House or Senate, which they viewed as a starting point toward a compromise. They let expire a two-week extension as permitted by the constitutional amendment without trying again, instead moving on to the congressional maps. Those are due Monday by midnight – but in theory, the panel could take advantage of the same two-week extension before sending an approved map to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. But tapping into this overtime period would give the legislature just one shot at the map, with no time to send it back for minor modifications, said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax: “If we get into overtime, whatever we come up with will in fact be final, unless the General Assembly rejects it,” he said. 

Earlier this week, the commission clashed over a map presented to the public as a bipartisan proposal that Simon said was largely drawn by a map consultant colluding with the National Republican Redistricting Trust. The map also sparked protest from many Lynchburg residents, because the proposal would have split the Hill City between two congressional districts, including a slice of Ward 2 – which was created as a majority-minority district.

And on Tuesday, Kareem Crayton and Gerry Hebert, the Democratic consultants, in a memo to the commission expressed concern that the split would pose “serious Voting Rights Act concerns,” (both state and federal). “There was no apparent reason why the mapping proposal divided the city between two congressional districts. And in doing so, the district seemed to mirror proposals that set the line in the middle of a majority Black local voting district,” the memo said.

The commission kicked off Wednesday’s three-hour meeting by reviewing two sets of modified maps by both the Republican and Democratic map drawers. All four proposals rectified the split, keeping Lynchburg in the 6th Congressional district, but commissioners were unable to find common ground on other alterations. 

The meeting spiraled out of control when commissioners came to accept the truth that their political divide was too large to overcome. “That’s the big elephant in the room,” said James Abrenio, a Democratic citizen commissioner from Fairfax County. “We keep talking about different versions of the maps, and we just keep going around in circles. Why are we avoiding this discussion?” 

Sean Kumar, a Democratic citizen member from Alexandria, said while he tried “not to be partisan as much as possible,” he found himself casting party-line votes. “The reality is, that’s what it’s coming down to,” Kumar said. “We set ourselves up for partisan votes early on. I don’t have a lot of hope that there is going to be some miracle that we haven’t had in the months that we have been doing that makes meeting Monday worthwhile.”

Del. Les Adams, a Republican commission legislator from Pittsylvania County, encouraged the panel to not view its efforts as failed. “The work that’s been done has been productive in a lot of ways, and if it can’t be agreed at the very end, that’s regrettable,” Adams said. “But we shouldn’t disparage the entire process, and certainly disparaging the motives of other members on the commission as we all don’t have our own political perspectives.” 

Abrenio echoed Adams’ remarks. “I suspect the Supreme Court, when they do their job, will be able to at least hear the voice of the people,” he said. “I don’t see this as a failure, I see this as a contemplated act envisioned in the amendment, however flawed it may be.”

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.