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Redistricting in Virginia is contentious and early

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.

Virtually all population growth has been in the cities and suburbs, where 85 percent of the state's residents live, while the rural population has been shrinking.

Northern Virginia is at the forefront of the change. Since the last census, Loudoun County has grown by 132,000 people, Prince William County by 98,000 people and Fairfax County by 68,000.

An ideal state Senate district has a population of about 197,000, and a House district has 79,000 people, although those figures could change when the 2010 census figures are reported next year. But some districts have grown so rapidly that they contain 100,000 too many people. One aim of redistricting is to get within 5 percentage points of the ideal, a figure determined by past court cases.

Republicans and Democrats in the region long have complained that Northern Virginia doesn't get its fair share of state dollars, and redistricting is expected to have some impact on how state funds are allocated.

"We send our money down south because we don't have the votes to protect it," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). "Now, we'll have more votes."

That's appropriate with a shift in population, said Quentin Kidd, a politicial scientist at Christopher Newport University.

"Eventually, there will be a change in how transportation is funded, how schools are funded, and the general orientation of Richmond toward public policy problems will change," he said.

In 2001, the last time districts were reconfigured, Virginia delayed both its filing deadline.

Squabbling in advance

This year, the two chambers considered delaying the primary, but couldn't agree on a date. They will have to revisit the issue next year. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) also must sign off on the plan. He said last week in a radio interview that he is determined that both parties will have a say in redistricting.

The responsibility for preparing the plan for federal review falls to state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R). He said he fears the Obama Justice Department could interpret the Voting Rights Act in a way that will lead to a legal clash.

"Part of my job is to be worried about things like that," he said. "I'd have them regardless of who the president was. I would say it's a heightened concern here."

The process already has been marked by partisan squabbling. This month, for example, House Republicans declined to hold joint public hearings with their Senate colleagues to hear the public's thoughts on redistricting.

The House will hold a hearing Oct. 5 at George Mason, and the Senate will have one in Herndon on Nov. 4. On Dec. 17, the House and Senate will hold hearings, one hour apart, in the General Assembly Building in Richmond.

Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), who chairs a committee that will lead the process in the Senate, said the legislature's best hope for smooth redistricting is an informal agreement to accept the other's formula.

"We will draw Senate lines. The House will draw their lines," she said. "And the expectation is that we won't meddle in each other's lines."

Proponents of bipartisan redistricting say that kind of argument defeats the purpose of drawing new lines to reflect population changes.

"They're all going to protect their incumbents," said Olga Hernandez, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia. "We don't think that's good governance. It's the politicos picking their voters instead of voters picking their representatives."

Avoiding the 1981 mess

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said that with control of the legislature divided, he expects that both parties will have input and serve as a check on the other.

"You won't see plans that have wild or gerrymandered districts," he said. "I don't think either side wants stalemate."

Both sides say they hope to avoid a disrupted election. Weighing heavily on lawmakers are memories of 1981, when a court rejected a redistricting plan for the House of Delegates, but not in time to draw new districts before the November elections. As a result, the General Assembly had to return to Richmond in 1982 and come up with a new plan. Delegates had to run for election for three years straight - 1981, 1982 and 1983.

Hoping to harness technology that wasn't available a decade ago, Political scientists McDonald and Kidd hope to launch a redistricting contest among public universities to see whether computer programs can offer alternatives that are not gerrymandered. The plans would be posted on the Internet.

"If we're going to continue redistricting like we do, let's do it in the light of day and see how it's done," Kidd said. "And if the voters want to punish you come election day, they can."

morelloc@washpost.com heldermanr@washpost.com

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