The fifth version of a plan to redistrict Virginia's House of Delegates was rejected by the U.S. Justice Department last night on grounds that it discriminates against black voters in Norfolk, Portsmouth and the Hampton-Newport News area.
With the legislature preparing for today's scheduled adjournment, it was not clear whether a new plan would be drawn up on a last-minute basis or whether a special legislative session would be required.
After talking by phone with the Justice Department, State Attorney General Gerald Baliles said he will meet this morning with legislative leaders and his aides, but it would be "premature to speculate" on what course of action might be followed.
The most recent redistricting plan, adopted by the legislature Jan. 13, provides for 95 single-member districts throughout the state, plus one district, in Norfolk, that would elect five delegates. An option to the plan would divide Norfolk into five single-member districts.
In rejecting the plan under the federal Voting Rights Act, William Bradford Reynolds, chief of Justice's civil rights division, said the multimember district in Norfolk appeared to be improper separate treatment. He said a fair apportionment could create two districts in Norfolk with substantial black majorities. The present plan, Reynolds added, limits the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice.
Reynolds also said that under the optional single-member district plan for Norfolk, the boundaries of one of the five districts are confusingly contorted.
In Portsmouth, Reynolds said, the black community is divided between two districts, both with white majorities, while any alternative plan would provide one district with a large black majority. In the Hampton area, Reynolds objected that the plan packs most of the black population into one district whose 75 percent black population is far more than needed to give black voters a fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
Virginia is one of 22 states required under the Voting Rights Act to submit changes in election districts for Justice review to assure fair treatment of minorities. One of the four previous plans was rejected last summer by the Justice Department. Another was disapproved by a three-judge federal panel which nevertheless permitted elections under it last fall. New elections were ordered this fall under a new plan.