Partisan sparks likely over Virginia’s proposed redistricting plans

April 11, 2011

— The Republican-held House of Delegates and the Democratic-led state Senate proposed competing plans for redrawing the state’s 11 congressional districts Monday, setting up a potential clash in the Virginia legislature over the intensely partisan issue.

The Republican plan, drawn with input from incumbents, is designed to preserve the partisan breakdown reflected in the November 2010 congressional election, which sent three Democrats and eight Republicans to Washington, said Del. William R. Janis (Goochland), who devised the map.

It accomplishes that goal in part by raising the percentage of voters who are black in the 3rd Congressional District — Virginia’s only district where minorities are in the majority — from nearly 53 to 57 percent. As a result, surrounding districts become more white.

The Senate plan would probably improve the chances of electing Democrats, in part by creating a second district with a sizable percentage of black voters.

The Voting Rights Act requires that Virginia’s new congressional maps, drawn in response to the 2010 Census, include at least one majority-minority district as the current maps do.

Senate Democrats say they think drawing a second “influence district” would ensure black voters have the opportunity to play a role in selecting more winning candidates — and make congressional races more competitive.

“Historically, they’ve tried to limit African American voting influence at the congressional level, by packing all or most of the African Americans they can pack into the 3rd District,” said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), who helped draw the Senate’s plan. “This is an attempt to do away with the packing of African-Americans into one district that we have historically seen.”

States must redraw their legislative and congressional maps every 10 years in response to population shifts, to ensure each district contains the same number of people and all state residents have equal representation in Congress.

Districts in Northern Virginia, which has seen tremendous growth in the past 10 years, will grow more compact. The rest of the state will see its districts grow geographically to compensate.

Virginia is one of nine states that must get preapproval for its maps from federal authorities under the 1965 Voting Rights Act because of its history of racial discrimination. The law requires that state’s not dilute black voting strength — or “retrogress” from current plans.

But there is considerable difference of opinion what, exactly, would constitute retrogression.

In the Senate proposal, the percentage of African Americans voters living in the 3rd Congressional District, represented by Rep. Robert C. Scott (D), would drop below 50 percent for the first time since the Department of Justice ordered Virginia to draw a majority-minority district in 1993. But it would remain a sizable nearly 42 percent.

Meanwhile, the 4th Congressional District — which would include much of Richmond and counties to its south — would become majority-minority for the first time.

The newly drawn district would no longer include the home of U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R), who lives in Chesapeake.

Janis said he spent months contacting all 11 members of the congressional delegation by phone and e-mail. He showed them the final proposal in person last week when he drove to Washington to meet with them individually.

“It’s bipartisan. Show me the last time all 11 members of Virginia’s congressional delegation agreed on anything,’’ Janis said. “Those congressmen don’t get a single vote on this plan. Why wouldn’t it make sense to go to them and ask for some input for what would make sense?”

Scott said in an interview that he prefers the Senate’s proposal, though he knows a divided General Assembly may not be able to muster enough support to pass those lines.

“There should be two minority districts in the state,’’ Scott said. “I’ve been saying that for 20 years.”

Senators said they would not immediately sign on to a plan designed to protect current officeholders.

“It looks like it’s just going to be an incumbent protection plan,” said Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), who is sponsoring the senate plan and chairs the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

As proposed, the two plans they include similar lines in Northern Virginia, though they could be amended by their respective chambers as the legislative process unfolds.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R) would pick up some parts of Prince William County now represented by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), probably making Connolly’s district safer for Democrats.

The 10th Congressional District represented by U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R) would shrink geographically, to accommodate population growth in Loudoun and western Fairfax.

It’s not clear how vigorously the Senate will fight the House over the maps, given that Republicans outnumber Democrats in Richmond and hold the governor’s mansion.

Simply introducing and passing an alternative plan — particularly one that can be argued to strengthen the voting power of black Virginians — could help if there is a lawsuit challenging the congressional map, a virtual inevitability.

Senate Democrats may be looking for leverage with Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who has seven days to consider whether to sign, veto or make makes changes to proposed new state legislative lines that were given final approval Monday by the General Assembly. Democrats want McDonnell to agree not to fiddle with their senate plan.

But if the two chambers adopt clashing congressional proposals, they could stalemate.

“We will, in all likelihood, pass the senate plan in the senate. And I’m sure the House will pass theirs and send it over to us,” Locke said. “And then we’ll see.”

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