Virginia Supreme Court Releases Final Redistricting Maps

The Supreme Court of Virginia on December 28 unanimously approved the final versions of the maps that will define the Commonwealth’s legislative and congressional districts for the next decade. The final maps were released and can be reviewed here.

The maps were accompanied by a lengthy memo written by the two special masters who drew the them.  In it, the two masters, Bernard Grofman and Sean Trende, explained the reasoning behind their final maps and the choices they had made in revising them after two days of public hearings and a review of public comments.

The special masters wrote, “Over the past few weeks, we have listened to the voices of dozens of Virginians, read thousands of their comments and consulted with the Court.” The special masters said that they had “done our best to incorporate the comments that we received. . . .” The final maps, they contended, “should demonstrate [that] we have paid attention, and have tried to incorporate as many of the suggestions as possible.” Still, they reiterated that redistricting “is a complex task, one that requires the balancing of multiple competing factors.” They acknowledged that “there are likely thousands of maps that accomplish certain goals of redistricting that we did not accomplish, but they come at the expense of other goals we sought to achieve.” They asserted that they had read every comment, and “where appropriate, explored ways to address the suggestion.”

The special masters’ lengthy memo described features of the new maps and how they tried to address the requests they heard. They noted that both of them had some knowledge of the state, and had continued to consult each other through Zoom calls, “sometimes stretching over the better part of  a day.” The maps, they said, “still reflect a true joint effort on our part.” They said they had agreed on almost all issues initially, and the few issues on which they initially disagreed “were resolved by amicable discussion.”

The redistricting process ended up on the desk of the Supreme Court when the deliberations of a bi-partisan commission of citizens and legislators broke down over partisan disagreements. The Court chose Grofman and Trende to draw the maps from a list of nominees submitted by the leaders of the General Assembly’s two political parties; the Court asked the Republicans to submit additional names after expressing concerns about the partisanship of their original nominees.

In describing their overall approach to map-drawing, Grofman and Trende had some tough language in response to some changes they had been asked to make. They noted that “perhaps the most common criticism” their maps had received was that “we paid insufficient attention to incumbency” and had paired too many legislators against each other and weakened congressional incumbents. In response, they noted that they had tried to eliminate the jurisdictional splits that had marred previous rounds of redistricting. The existing Senate map, they noted, splits 46 counties 78 times and the House of Delegates map splits 60 counties 138 times. Their final Senate map splits 25 counties 34 times, and for the House, 51 counties are split 98 times.

The special masters said that in consultation with the Court, they had rejected calls to pay attention to the addresses of incumbents, and noted that “incumbency protection” is not a valid criterion. Paying attention to the protection of incumbents, they wrote, “would seem to be at odds” with the thrust of the constitutional amendment approved by Virginia voters in November 2020. “Having established compact districts that respect communities of interest, however, our hope is that future redistrictings utilizing the same criteria will be less severe.” In response to those who argued for keeping old districts in place, they responded, “a minimal changes map based upon districts drawn with heavy political considerations would, in our view, bless those districts and contravene the intent of the voters” who passed the amendment. Again, they hoped that redistricting would be easier to accomplish in the future, now that previous rounds of gerrymandering have been addressed.

The special masters said they drew their proposed maps “without referencing partisanship, except to ensure that our ability-to-elect districts would, in fact, function to elect the minority candidate of choice.” At the end of their work, they said they “unblinded” themselves to partisanship, but noted that despite recent Democratic gains in the General Assembly, Republicans demonstrated in 2021 that they could still win in the Commonwealth. In the end, they said they accomplished the task of creating an unbiased map naturally, using neutral principles, and did not need to adjust the maps that had been drawn in a partisan-blind fashion.

They noted that “partisan information has now been made widely available and we cannot re-blind ourselves to this information.” But, they said, they were “wary of allowing ourselves to be used as cat’s paws by those who might have seen the comment period as an opportunity to guide us toward a partisan gerrymander under the guise of preserving communities of interest or drawing compact districts.” To that end, they said they only implemented changes to the maps “if they could be done in a way that was neutral as to partisanship, since the maps are already well-balanced.”

The special masters’ memo also described the approach they took to following voting rights considerations, noting that “it is obviously impossible for these various views of the VRA’s (Voting Rights Act’s) commands to coexist.” They noted that their congressional map would preserve two minority ability-to-elect districts and increase the number of those kinds of districts in the legislature. They also described their approach to dealing with the issues of population equity and split precincts, among other issues. 

The new districts will be put in place for the 2022 Congressional races; it is not yet clear when current members of the General Assembly will have to run in their new districts, since the 2020 redistricting process took longer to accomplish because of delays associated with the 2020 Census. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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