As the General Assembly returns to Richmond to weigh congressional redistricting Thursday, the ACLU of Virginia is circulating a proposed map that would include two congressional districts in which black voters hold a majority.
The Voting Rights Act has been interpreted as requiring state legislatures to draw majority-minority districts when they can. Virginia has only one of 11 districts in which black voters are in the majority — the 3rd Congressional District represented by Rep. Bobby Scott (D).
But ACLU Executive Director Kent Willis said it is time for the state to draw a second district, given that African-Americans make up nearly 20 percent of the state population.
“Our main reason for creating the map is because no one else had,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the group. “For legislators, redistricting is never a simple technical process. There are always multiple issues involved that affect how maps look. We wanted to draw a map looking as purely as possible at racial fairness.”
Minority voting power will be central to the legislative debate over new boundaries for Virginia’s 11 Congressional district, drawn in response to population shifts tracked by the 2010 census.
Willis said the ACLU map draws no incumbents out of their current districts. All 11 districts include exactly the same number of people, as required by law, he said.
In the ACLU map, Scott’s 3rd district would continue to stretch from Richmond east into Hampton and Newport News. The 4th Congressional District, now represented by Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, would pick up black communities in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Petersburg.
Democrats in the state Senate have said they would like to bolster minority voting power — but they have said they did not think it was numerically possible to draw a new district in which black voters are in the majority.
Instead, they have proposed a map that would create a district in the Richmond area where black voters would hold a slim majority.
As a result, the percentage of black residents in Scott’s district would dip to 40 percent — not a majority, but a sizable enough number that Senate Democrats say they could exert significant voting power over that district as well.
The Republican-led House of Delegates has advanced a status quo map that would protect the state’s 11 incumbents and was drawn with their input. Under the House plan, the percentage of African Americans in the 3rd district, Virginia’s only majority-minority district, would rise from 53 to 57 percent.
As a state with a history of racial discrimination, Virginia’s redistricting plans must be approved by the Department of Justice. One issue the Justice Department examines — as do judges in lawsuits challenging the racial fairness of legislative maps — is whether legislatures chose their map over alternatives that would have boost minority representation.
“It’s hard to predict what will happen with the congressional redistricting plan in Virginia,” Willis said. “But it is important for the record — either for the Department of Justice or potential litigation — that a plan such as this is presented to the General Assembly, and they know about it.”
The plan has been posted to the ACLU’s Web site since May 31. Willis said he was circulating it to legislators Wednesday. It was first reported by the Richmond Times Dispatch.
Update, 6 p.m.: Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), a leading supporter of the proposal advanced by Senate Democrats, said late Wednesday afternoon that he has concerns about the ACLU proposal. While the proposal contains two districts where just over half of residents are black, he said that's only true when examining a broad definition of "black residents." According to McEachin, the Department of Justice looks to the percentage of residents in districts who are older than 18 and are non-Hispanic black when examining the number of black residents in each district.
By that definition, both of the "majority-minority" districts in the ACLU plan dip just below the 50 percent generally used to define districts as "majority-minority." While 52.92 percent of the total residents of the ACLU's proposed District 3 fall into the broad definition of black, only 48.77 percent are over 18 and non-Hispanic black. Likewise, while 52.40 percent of total residents in the ACLU's proposed District 4 fall into the broad definition, 49.40 percent are over 18 and non-Hispanic black.
"I think the ACLU certainly had its heart in the right place and was trying to help us out in a positive way," McEachin said. "Unfortunately, I think the plan falls short."
This post has been updated since it was first published.