McDonnell’s redistricting commission: We will be relevant

It seems some incumbents will do anything to prevent Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Independent Bipartisan Redistricting Commission from proceeding with the work of recommending new legislative maps free of political considerations.

Okay, fine. So there’s no actual indication that any incumbent congressman, state senator or delegate was behind the false fire alarm that went off at the Virginia State Capitol on Thursday morning as the panel met, requiring the commissioners to briefly halt their work and evacuate the building.

But there is indication that the politicians don’t plan to take the commission’s work all that seriously--and the commissioners aren’t thrilled about it.

Recent weeks have seen a report that the state’s 11 congressional representatives have largely already agreed on a plan that would shore up incumbent seats. And there’s been blunt talk from state Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D) that he is working hard behind the scenes to draw up senate districts that will make it easier for Democrats to retain control of the chamber.

The General Assembly will not hold a special session to redraw maps in response to the 2010 census until April 4, but we hear that state legislative incumbents are already vigorously trading map proposals.

So where does that leave the commission?

It has held two public hearings and spent its meeting at the Capitol trying to agree on some guiding principles for drawing the maps that it will recommend to the legislature.

They agreed, for example, that state legislative districts should, wherever possible, differ in size from the ideal district size by no more than two percent if the state were divided evenly. But the 2 percent guideline, they said, could be narrowly exceeded if necessary to avoid breaking up counties or cities.

That’s the kind of mathematical question that rules in redistricting. Courts have said congressional districts must be essentially identical in size, but they’ve said state districts can be as much as five percent too big or small. In 2000, the General Assembly agreed to stick to a two percent guideline to closer approximate one person-one vote.

Another principle they agreed on: They’ve got to start from scratch.

The group said it’s just not possible to meet their mission of drawing compact, contiguous districts that abide by the Voting Rights Act and respect communities of interest if they simply make tweaks to current districts.

Of course, starting from scratch is how you end up with lots of districts that don’t include the homes of sitting politicians, such as draft congressional maps that the commission examined last week that left as many as four incumbents out of their seats.

So be it, the commissioners seemed to agree, even if it means the politicians who are charged with drawing the maps end up taking their work less seriously.

Regardless of the political establishment’s reaction, commission member Sean O’Brien said the group has been hearing from students in a college redistricting competition and other members of the public who’ve said they appreciate the commission’s transparent process and believe it is relevant.

“The maps that we’re hearing about that are being drawn behind closed doors are the ones that are irrelevant,” O’Brien said.

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