DOJ requests interviews with redistricting legislators

Lawyers with the Department of Justice have requested interviews with leading Virginia senators and delegates, as they review whether the state’s proposed new state legislative districts comply with the terms of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) and Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), who sponsored the proposals for new Senate and House maps respectively, each confirmed that they’ve been asked to sit for a phone interview with DOJ staff.

Other senators and delegates, including members of the black caucuses in each chamber, have received similar requests.

Howell and Jones characterized the DOJ request as a routine part of the federal agency’s review — a sign that Justice is moving quickly to decide whether to approve Virginia’s proposal rather than any indication that federal lawyers have concerns about the plan.

“I think it’s part of their standard operating procedure,” Jones said.

“They’re doing their due diligence,” Howell added.

DOJ rules give the agency 60 days from the May 10 date of the plan’s submission. But with November’s elections looming, senators and delegates are hoping DOJ could move even more quickly.

“Everyone is hoping they’ll finish sooner than 60 days, given that we’re running,” Howell said.

Because of its history of racial discrimination, Virginia is one of nine states that must get federal approval for its new legislative boundaries, drawn every 10 years to bring districts into alignment with population shifts revealed by the census.

The Voting Rights Act forbids states from “retrogressing” in terms of minority representation by diluting minority voting strength.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who as the state’s top lawyer guides the DOJ preclearance process, has also filed the state’s plan with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The Voting Rights Act allows states to seek either DOJ or judicial approval, and Cuccinelli said he thinks it was in Virginia’s best interest to initiate both procedures.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

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