THE 16-member Virginia Redistricting Commission missed Sunday’s deadline to submit newly drawn legislative maps to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. Last week, co-chair Greta Harris admitted that “we’re sort of stuck,” and a last-ditch effort to resolve commissioners’ differences during a public meeting Friday in Richmond was unsuccessful.
So they are now moving on to draw 11 congressional district maps starting on Thursday, hopefully before the Oct. 25 deadline. But their stunning failure to arrive at a consensus on 140 legislative boundaries—100 in the House of Delegates and 40 in the state Senate—does not bode well for this latest effort.
How did they get to such an impasse?
It was a very bad idea to hire two sets of consultants—one Democrat and one Republican—to come up with two sets of proposed maps. The consultants divvied up the commonwealth more than 40 ways, making it nearly impossible for ordinary Virginians to make sense of them.
In just one example, Democratic consultants’ House map B6 increased “strong-leaning Democratic districts” from the current 30 to 37. A competing Republican House map (A7) also increased “strong-leaning Democratic districts” from 30 to 38 and reduced the number of “strong-leaning Republican districts” from 26 to 25. But because A7 also increased the number of “lean Republican” districts from 11 to 15, and had five less purple “swing” districts, both maps were shot down by the commission.
And so on. Every possible point of compromise or consensus was rejected by one side or the other.
When Harris and two other Democratic commissioners walked out on Friday, commissioners had not even agreed to ask for a 14-day extension to finish work on the legislative districts.
This is not what voters had in mind last November when they overwhelmingly voted for the constitutional amendment setting up the Redistricting Commission instead of relying on partisan gerrymandering by the majority, as was always done in the past.
To be fair, commissioners were faced with the extremely difficult task of reconciling not only the placement of minority voters based on seemingly contradictory court orders that prohibit both “packing and cracking,” but also creating “compact and contiguous” districts that do not separate “communities of interest.” All while following statutory “standards and criteria” that prohibit “unduly favoring or disfavoring any political party”—and keeping the population of each new district relatively equal.
But the eight commission members who are also legislators knew that they would have to agree to a final version at some point. By hiring partisan consultants, they started off with the farthest possible distance between them in a hyper-politicized environment where even a small move toward consensus is perceived as a defeat for their side.
Which is exactly what seems to have happened, as neither side could even agree on which maps were to be used as the starting points in negotiations.
If they can’t get their act together, the Virginia Supreme Court will appoint two special masters—one selected by Democrats and one by Republicans—to do the job for them.
After all this drama, one party will wind up with an electoral advantage, however slight, because you can’t take the politics out of politics. But it won’t be as blatant as gerrymandering, and that’s a good thing.
Voters should remember that Democrats were for the Virginia Redistricting Commission before they were against it, and vice versa for Republicans. So whatever happens, please, no bellyaching about the final outcome. Both parties’ handpicked commissioners had their chance to do the right thing.