Redistricting Commission Bogs Down Over Voting Rights Criteria

After changing its agenda to provide more direction to its map makers, the Virginia Redistricting Commission could not reach consensus September 13 on instructions related to meeting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.

The commission listened to lengthy presentations by its partisan counsels on recent case law interpreting the act, but two motions, eventually suggested by Meg Lamb, a lawyer for the Division of Legislative Services, both narrowly failed. The counsels were instructed to work together with Lamb and the commission’s co-chairs on language that both sides could support to present at the commission’s September 15 meeting, beginning at 8 a.m.

The commission appeared to split over whether map makers should consider creating districts where members of more than one minority group could be measured as a coalition to create a “minority opportunity” district, one where more than 50 percent of the voting age population is a member of a minority group. Democratic counsel J. Gerald Hebert argued that the U.S. Supreme Court had not prohibited that practice. But the Republican counsels said while the practice might be permissible, the commission was not required to do so under the Voting Rights Act. Some commission members worried that instructing map makers to take that approach would make the commission’s maps more vulnerable to legal challenge, now that the high court has ruled that “racial gerrymandering” is impermissible. But after an initial motion failed, a second motion, changing “shall” to “may,” also failed, as some of the commission’s Democratic members seemed to view it as too weak.

Commission members received a 15-page memo from their counsels about the interpretation of the Voting Rights Act right before the meeting. On this and three other issues, the counsels were asked to work together to provide guidance they could agree on, and to do it by 5 p.m. the next day, to provide more time for commission members to review before they had  to vote. The other issues relate to prioritizing the political subdivisions that should be preserved, defining communities of interest and evaluating “political equity.”

The issue at the heart of the commission’s lengthiest discussion was quickly on display when time was made available at the end of meeting for virtual public comments by persons who had signed up earlier that morning. Three of the speakers commented on draft maps for Northern Virginia districts that had been proposed the week before, objecting that a Latinx community along Columbia Pike in Arlington and Fairfax counties had been split up in all of the proposals. Paul Berry, who chairs the Fairfax County Redistricting Commission and the Virginia Latino Advisory Board, also objected to combining the Reston and Herndon communities because their demographics and voting patterns were so different.

The speakers also complained that the way the plans were drawn, incumbent minority legislators had been drawn out of their districts. Erin Corbett, of the Virginia Citizen Engagement Table, noting the growth in the state’s Asian population over the past decade, also urged map makers to pay attention to the subsets of the minority population when they did their work so that those communities could be preserved.

 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

 

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