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.

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SCOVA Names Grofman, Trende as Special Masters to Draw New State Maps

The Supreme Court of Virginia November 19 named Bernard N. Grofman and Sean P. Trende to be the Special Masters tasked to  work together to draw single redistricting maps for the state’s congressional districts and the two legislative chambers.

The Court’s order noted that while the Special Masters were nominated by the General Assembly’s party leaders, they “shall serve as officers of the Court in a quasi-judicial capacity. Consequently, the Special Masters shall be neutral and shall not act as advocates or representatives of any political party.” The Court added that the Special Masters, by accepting their appointments, warranted that they had no conflicts of interest that would preclude them from “exercising independent judgment, dispassionately following the Court’s instructions, or objectively applying the government decision-making criteria.” 

The Court instructed the Special Masters to present their proposed maps “as soon as reasonably practicable,” but no later than 30 days from the Court’s order. That mandated date appears to put the deadline in the middle of the holiday season, during the week before Christmas.

The Special Masters were instructed not to “consult with any political parties, partisan organizations, outside experts, or any other person or entity except for their personal support staff, the staff of the Court, and three Division of Legislative Services staff members who supported the Virginia Redistricting Commission, Amigo Wade, Julie Smith, and Meg Lamb. But the Court encouraged the Special Masters to review “comments submitted by any entity or person to the Court’s public comment email address, Notably, the Court ordered the Special Masters to resolve “any disputes” by good-faith efforts to find a compromise consistent with governing legal requirements.” The Redistricting Commission had voted to hire two partisan map drawers who were never able to present a single, compromise map. 

The Court directed the Special Masters to comply with federal and state law in this order of precedence: the U.S. Constitution, particularly Article I, Section 2, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; applicable federal statutes, particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Virginia Constitution; and applicable Virginia statutes. In presenting that list of priorities, the Court did not include any of the additional criteria that the Redistricting Commission had voted to accept, such as preserving jurisdictional boundaries or starting the map drawing from “scratch.”

Grofman, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine, is no stranger to redistricting in Virginia because he served as Special Master to redraw Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District in 2015 and 11 House of Delegate districts in 2018 when federal courts ruled that the 2010 redistricting process amounted to impermissible racial gerrymandering. Redrawing those districts ultimately impacted the boundaries of some 30 House of Delegate districts. 

Trende was one of three nominees put forth by the Republican leadership after the Court expressed concerns about their first three choices. Trende, a lawyer, is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics and a non-resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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Party Leaders Submit Additional Nominees to Be Special Masters

The party leaders of the General Assembly responded November 17 to the Supreme Court of Virginia’s request for the names of additional nominees to serve as special masters to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts.

The Republican leaders submitted three more names with a brief identification:

  • Sean Trende, senior elections analyst, RealClearPolitics and nonresident fellow, American Enterprise Institute;
  • Doug Johnson, president, National Demographics Corporation;
  • Justin Levitt, vice president, National Demographics Corporation. (Levitt is a political science professor at California State University, not the Loyola Law School professor of the same name who is now serving as a senior policy adviser on voting rights at the White House.)

The court November 12 rejected one of the Republicans’ original nominees, noting he had served as a paid consultant for the Virginia Republican Senate Caucus. It also expressed concern about the partisan background of two other nominees. The court granted a request by the Republican leaders for more time to submit names, but declined their request for a “telephone status conference” to discuss the qualifications of special masters. In that request, a lawyer for the leaders said they hoped to avoid “having their second round of nominations followed up by subsequent disqualification. . . .”

At the court’s request, the Democratic leadership also submitted the name of an additional nominee, R. Michael Alvarez, a professor of political and computational social science at Caltech, and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. The court requested an additional name after an unidentified Democratic nominee expressed concerns about following the mandates of the Virginia code, which call for partisan special masters to work together to produce the maps.

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Commission Reviews State House Maps for Three Regions

The Virginia Redistricting Commission began its detailed review of draft maps for the House of Delegates on September 29, but after four hours of discussion, was able to consider only three of the regions it had planned to review. The commission will meet again on Friday, October 1 at 8 a.m., and has scheduled its first weekend meeting at 9 a.m. on Saturday October 2.

The agendas have not yet been posted, but the October 1 meeting is likely to focus on House maps beyond the three areas it reviewed on September 29, namely the Southwest, Southside and Hampton Roads regions. Previously, the commission had expected to review a revised map for Senate maps on Saturday. While a Sunday meeting has not been formally announced yet, that prospect was referenced during the meeting.

With eight virtual public hearings scheduled to start on Monday October 4, the Division of Legislative Services staff was asked what the commission was required to decide before the mandated hearings begin. DLS attorney Meg Lamb said there was “no legal prohibition” on putting forth alternatives, but said the staff “would encourage a draft that is close to complete. I think there would be a concern about multiple versions going forward.” Republican counsel Bryan Tyson echoed that point, suggesting that once the differing versions are “schmushed together,” it will be harder to make major changes.

The commissioners started their consideration with the Southwest region, working eastward across the state to Southside and then Hampton Roads. Once again debate over the southeast corner of the state centered on issues related to redistricting minority communities. Legislative commissioners were still reluctant to take formal votes, while others suggested map drawers needed more guidance. Near the end of the meeting, several Democratic members suggested there was a consensus to support the map the Republican map drawer had produced for District 77 in Southside, and to meld the Hampton Roads districts drawn by the Democratic map drawer, which seemed to create more districts where the non-white population was more than 40 percent, if still short of a majority. But Republican Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko cut that discussion off to permit time for public comment before the meeting had to end. Only one of three virtual commenters who had signed up then appeared.

As the commission worked through the maps, members demonstrated the importance of geographic diversity on the commission as members contributed their personal knowledge of different parts of the state. Democratic commissioners Greta Harris and James Abrenio shared that they had lived in the southwest part of the state when they were children, and Republican Commissioner Richard Harrell, a retired trucking executive, drew on his knowledge of trucking routes through the Blue Ridge mountains.

Map drawers had been asked to try to avoid “incumbent pairings,” that is, when incumbents are pitted against each other, in their latest iterations. But commission members quickly focused on a boundary that separated two incumbents in Washington County, rather than keeping the county intact. Harris and Democratic commissioner Sean Kumar expressed concern that too much emphasis had been placed on unpairing incumbents at the expense of criteria they considered more important.

At previous meetings, legislative members had argued that the commission would eventually have to review incumbent addresses and pairings for purposes of determining whether their maps disadvantaged a political party. Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) noted that because of declines in population, the Southwest was likely to lose a seat in the House of Delegates. Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) said he didn’t disagree with Kumar’s concerns, but that he wanted those concerns “to be remembered when we go to Northern Virginia and Hampton Read more

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Commission Tackles Senate Maps in Marathon Session

 

With its deadline rapidly approaching, the Virginia Redistricting Commission rolled up its sleeves September 27 and spent six and a half hours reviewing draft maps for Virginia’s 40 Senate districts.

The starting point was a single map that was hammered out over the weekend by its two co-chairs, its two partisan map drawers and legal counsel and the Division of Legislative Services staff. The meeting began with the two map drawers each describing the map to the commission, noting that with a bit more flexibility on population deviations, they had been able to reduce the number of split counties. They also succeeded in eliminating all but one potential “incumbent pairing,” (where two incumbents are placed in the same district). (In some cases, they noted, incumbents plan to retire before the new boundaries take effect.) They also discussed how the plan sought to increase new opportunities for the state’s growing minority population to win legislative seats.

Following their presentation, Democratic Co-Chair Greta Harris said, “I was probably wrong in stating that it was a consensus map. Each map drawer is coming at it from a different perspective.” But working with their partisan advisers, the co-chairs worked out a compromise for the commission to discuss as a whole.

The longest debate surrounded differing approaches to drawing districts for the Hampton Roads area, a part of the state where an analysis has found that Racially Polarized Voting, or differences between white voters and minority voters, occurs. After a long discussion, including a break to give the map drawers a chance to try and reach a compromise, Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) moved that Democratic approach be incorporated into the draft map. Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) immediately offered a substitute motion in favor of the Republican approach. Simon wondered aloud what was going on and why the two sides have “dug in so hard on the differences. . . ?” Lawyers explained that the major difference was where and how the district on the Eastern Shore joined the mainland, and the effect that had on dividing up the jurisdictions in the southeast corner of the state, and their minority populations.

When the vote came, the commission split along partisan lines, until Simon, realizing that Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) had had to step out, voted along with the Republicans. That permitted him to introduce a motion to reconsider the vote late in the meeting, “in the interests of comity.” This time, the commission agreed by voice vote to let the map drawers try to work out a compromise.

At the end of the meeting, Harris detailed several other issues for the map drawers to review, many of them raised by the public at this meeting and previous ones, when they prepare their next Senate map, due by October 2 for posting before the public hearings begin:

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Redistricting Commission Continues Its Slow Review of Draft Maps

 

The Virginia Redistricting Commission continued its deliberations on September 23, feeling the crunch of the deadlines it faces for drawing maps in time for another round of public hearings while still waiting for important data to be incorporated.

At the meeting, the commission’s map makers began to share details of the Senate districts on which they felt they were achieving consensus. But the commission first had a lengthy, sometimes emotional, discussion about protecting minority voting rights in the state.

At the outset, Mackenzie Babichenko, the Republican co-chair, outlined more details about the commission’s upcoming round of virtual public hearings, which will be targeted to specific regions of the state. On Monday October 4, Southwest Virginia will be reviewed at 10 a.m. and the Northern Virginia region at 4 p.m. On Tuesday October 5, Southside will be reviewed at 10 a.m. and the Hampton Roads region at 4 p.m. On Wednesday October 6, the Eastern region will be reviewed at 10 a.m. and the Central Region at 4 p.m. And on Thursday October 7, the Valley region will be reviewed at 10 a.m. and the West Central region at 4 p.m.

Commissioners just received an 80-page compilation of the emailed public comments that the commission has received so far, and members of the public can continue to submit comments through the commission’s website. In addition, comments directed at proposed maps are now specifically tied to the spot on the pertinent map with a virtual pushpin. Babichenko said the commission was now looking for very specific feedback on what the public liked and didn’t like about the maps, and suggestions for how they could be improved.

Before the start of the meeting, the map makers shared their suggestions for a handful of Senate districts in the southwest corner of the state where population counts and jurisdictional boundaries make their decision-making easier than in other, more diverse and populous regions.

But the review quickly broke down with arguments over use of political data and how much the map drawers should proceed when they still lack certain kinds of data. Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) continued to argue that political data should start to be used as a check of partisan fairness, and instructions not to favor one party over another. That is one of the commission’s criteria, but one that is lower than other constitutionally mandated requirements. But the commission, and its map drawers, are still waiting for an updated analysis of Racially Polarized Voting and data on primary elections over the past decade that Read more

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Commission Digs into Review of Draft Maps for Entire State

The Virginia Redistricting Commission began its review of two sets of draft maps for state legislative districts September 20, while acknowledging they do not yet reflect data that the commission will have to take into consideration before its work can be completed.

Democratic Co-Chair Greta Harris, who chaired the meeting, declared that it was “a very exciting day for the Virginia Redistricting Commission.” Four new sets of maps had been posted on the commission’s website two days earlier, and the commission’s two map drawers spent the bulk of the commission’s meeting walking members through the reasoning behind the lines they had drawn. The map makers explained that their latest drafts incorporate the first version of the maps they previously drew for Northern Virginia and did not revisit those maps in describing their work at this meeting.

At the outset of his presentation, Ken Strasma, the Democratic map maker, stressed that “in no way is this a final proposal.” Strasma said that he did not look at election data or incumbent addresses, and that at some point that data would need to be considered to assess the maps’ political neutrality. He said that he had focused on keeping jurisdictions together and creating compact districts and where possible, grouping similar communities. Strasma said he had looked at some public comments posted with his first drafts, “and it’s clear that the public is weighing in.” But he noted that the map makers are supposed to take their direction from the commission, after it distills the comments and provides guidance.

Republican map maker John Morgan said he, too, had focused on preserving jurisdictions and compactness. Strasma said that using three different measures of compactness, all the drafts were more compact than the current maps. Using one particular measurement, he said his Democratic Senate map would be judged to be more compact, but the Republican-drawn map would be considered more compact for the House districts. Both map makers described factors, such as major highways, military bases and rural-urban differences that they had considered in describing where they chose to draw the lines. The proposals also reflected some messages that the commission had already heard from the public, such as keeping the city of Lynchburg intact. The map makers’ detailed presentations can be reviewed when the archived video of the commission’s meeting is posted to its website. A lengthy document, showing each of the draft districts, is here.  (The map makers were encouraged to adopt the same protocol for numbering districts, and to choose contrasting colors to make them easier to review.)

At the end of their lengthy presentations, the map makers were urged to review those parts of the state, mostly rural areas, where their maps were similar to see if they could reach a consensus on those districts. The populations of those areas also are largely white, and thus not subject to the  Racially Polarized Voting analysis to which certain other parts of the state must be subjected. Read more

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Map Drawers Post Draft Plans for State Legislative Districts

The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s map drawers’ draft proposals for all 140 state legislative districts were unveiled on September 18, in time for the commission to begin reviewing the drafts at its September 20 meeting. 

The meeting, which will be livestreamed, is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. and to include 2 1/2 hours of discussion about the drafts. The maps have been posted on the commission’s website in a format designed to encourage specific public comments. (The latest drafts are designated as Versions 100, 101, 102 and 103, with a version for each chamber prepared by each of its partisan map drawers.)  The current maps have also been posted, so that the public can also comment on what they do and don’t like about the current districts. 

The commission originally planned to roll out maps on a region-by-region basis, but after discussing drafts for Northern Virginia, its co-chairs decided to review proposals for the whole state. In addition to its current mechanisms for public comment, the commission plans to hold virtual hearings, focused on different parts of the state, once its initial work is done. 

The commission has additional time in which to prepare the new congressional district maps, and has not yet reviewed any drafts of those. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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Redistricting Commission Provides Directions, but Again Deadlocks on Race

The Virginia Redistricting Commission September 15 unanimously approved consensus instructions to its two map drawers on three items for which they had sought guidance, but continued to split along partisan lines regarding directions for creating minority-opportunity districts.

The votes came as the commission’s map makers each prepare their statewide maps of State Senate and House districts. That work is expected to be completed by September 17, giving the commission time to review the maps before its next meeting at 8 a.m. on Monday September 20.  By then, the commission will also have more details about public comments that have been made to date, which, it was told, number in the “thousands.” The comments are now being organized into a data base by the commission’s communications and outreach consultants; as of September 17, commissioners will be able to run reports to review comments directed to a particular issue or region. Those reports will then be made part of the public record. Additional improvements to the commission’s website are scheduled to be made in the coming weeks. The commission is scheduled to start virtual public hearings on its modified proposed maps on October 4.

The commission began its latest meeting by discussing consensus instructions prepared by its partisan counsels on questions related to defining political subdivisions, political neutrality and communities of interest. Ultimately, all three positions were approved with a few small changes, but not before commission members provided perspectives reflecting the differences in the urban and rural communities they represent or where they live.

New language to provide guidance on creating so-called “coalition districts,” was not proposed, it was explained, because the counsels could not reach agreement on their advice. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on impermissible “racial gerrymandering,” but has not yet reviewed a case involving coalition districts, where one or more minority groups live close together and support the same candidates, creating a potential majority. Lower circuit courts have split on the issue, but some of those decisions date from the 1990s. Republican commission members, in particular, worried that providing the instructions the Democrats sought would make the commission’s maps more vulnerable to legal challenge.

But Democratic members were not content to simply ignore the issue, and forced another vote. In the end, the practical outcome was the same as it had been two days before.  

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) began by noting that that issue had not been brought back for a review, and said, “It seems like we have decided that on the question of giving map drawers guidance on the Voting Rights Act, we are at a hopeless impasse.” Simon asked whether the vote should be revisited. “I don’t want to let it go by. A decision not to decide is a statement.  . . .”

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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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