Virginia lawmakers in stalemate over congressional redistricting

September 1, 2011

Virginia lawmakers are expected to postpone until at least November the redrawing of the state’s 11 congressional districts and might ultimately have a federal court decide the redistricting plan.

The six negotiators charged with devising a compromise between the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and the Democratic-led Senate have not met and have no plans to do so.

Negotiators and legislative leaders say they will revisit the issue after November’s General Assembly elections. But even then, Senate leaders say, they could be at an impasse that might require a federal court to step in and draw the new lines.

“There’s no resolution,’’ Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said.

“There hasn’t been much movement,’’ said Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland), who introduced the House plan.

In April, the House adopted a new map, drawn with input from incumbents, designed to preserve the partisan breakdown reflected in the November 2010 congressional elections, which sent three Democrats and eight Republicans to Washington.

The Senate passed a competing map, which would create a district in which black voters are a sizable minority, in addition to another district in which they hold a majority.

The Voting Rights Act effectively requires that Virginia’s new congressional maps include at least one majority-­minority district as the current maps do. The House plan, like Virginia’s current map, includes one majority-minority ­district.

Senate Democrats say a new minority “influence district” would ensure that the congressional delegation is more likely to reflect the state’s demographics. Although almost 20 percent of Virginia’s population is black, only one of its members of Congress is black.

“It’s a lot more fair,’’ said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), one of the negotiators. “It’s the right thing to do.”

As proposed, the two plans include similar lines in Northern Virginia, although they could be amended.

Virginia is one of nine states that, because of a history of racial discrimination, must get approval of its maps from federal authorities. The law requires that states not dilute black voting strength.

Whipple and Janis said they met once in Richmond in July. Janis also said he drove to Hampton to meet with Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and sponsor of the Senate plan. But the six have not met as a group, and no meetings are planned.

“It’s a mistake to say there’s an impasse; they haven’t even tried,’’ Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) said in an interview. Bolling presides over the Senate.

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

The General Assembly passed a plan to redraw the state’s legislative districts in the summer but has been struggling with congressional redistricting since. Many say they think the state constitution mandates that redistricting occur in 2011, the year the census numbers were released.

Janis hopes legislators will be motivated after the elections. “People are preoccupied and focused on elections now,’’ he said.

But Saslaw and Whipple say the disagreement might force them to allow a federal court to draw the lines.

Bolling said Democrats are only saying that because they think they can get a better map out of the courts.

“They don’t have any serious interest in solving the issue,’’ he said. “That’s a disservice to the public.”

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