Redistricting in Virginia is contentious and early

 Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. (AP)
By Carol Morello and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 2:59 PM

Virginia is facing the toughest political balancing act in the country as it attempts to redraw its state legislative districts in just a few months, a process that most states won't finish for a year or more.

The arcane but important process of redistricting is further complicated because this is the first time since Reconstruction when one party doesn't control the process in Virginia: Republicans dominate the House and Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate. That has raised concerns that a partisan stalemate could delay and even disrupt next year's legislative elections, as both parties look to draw lines that protect their incumbents and boost their chances of winning new seats.

Several of the legislators most affected are in Washington's far suburbs, which have ballooned in population in the past decade.

They include Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun), whose district now has 105,000 too many residents, according to preliminary census figures. Also affected are Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) and Senate Finance Chairman Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), who has said he probably will retire.

In the House, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) now represents 68,000 too many people and will face big changes. So, too, will Del. Thomas A. Greason (R-Loudoun) and Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun).

Rural legislators whose regions have declined in population, notably including House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry), also will have their districts reshaped.

Northern Virginia, which has gained almost 500,000 residents since the last census, could gain at least one seat in the 40-member Senate (up from 11) and two or three seats in the 100-member House of Delegates (up from 26).

Even if state legislators can speedily find a middle ground, another obstacle awaits: The plan must be approved by the Department of Justice, a requirement under the Voting Rights Act for Southern states such as Virginia with a history of discrimination against African Americans.

Detailed census population figures that are the basis for the new lines come out in February, and Virginia's filing deadline for state legislative candidates is just two months later.

That gives the state the shortest time frame of the four that have state elections in 2011. Louisiana and Mississippi have qualifying deadlines months later than Virginia. The fourth, New Jersey, doesn't need federal approval of its plans.

"We have to move very quickly in Virginia," said Michael P. McDonald, a George Mason University political scientist who is a nationally recognized expert on redistricting. "And it will be difficult to come up with a compromise."

The state faces so much work, in so little time, that both the House and Senate already have started public hearings on redistricting, including one Tuesday at George Mason University and another Nov. 4 in Herndon.The tension comes from Virginia's metamorphosis into a more urban state.

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