A group of college students and others who have for years urged the General Assembly to ditch its partisan redistricting process in favor of letting an independent commission draw new legislative lines came to Richmond Monday to push their cause as the legislature opens its once-a-decade redistricting special session.

And they brought snakes.

Wearing t-shirts featuring a cobra rearing its head and carrying a giant stuffed snake, the advocates said plans advanced last week by political leaders for redrawing the maps for the state senate and House of Delegates contain snake-like districts drawn to protect incumbents and partisan interests. Such districts, they said, divide communities, weaken representation and cause citizens to lose interest in the political process. “Virginia--don’t let the snake bite you. Support bipartisan redistricting,” read the back of the groups’ t-shirts.

“If we look at the lines, we’re seeing donkeys and elephants, drawing dragons and snakes,” said Doug Smith, head of the Redistricting Coalition that is urging a bipartisan redistricting commission.

The group said they want the General Assembly to adopt fairer lines this year--and to go ahead and change the process for 10 years from now. The legislature redistricts itself every 10 years in response to the census in an attempt to ensure each district includes about the same number of people.

The students, many members of the Virginia 21 youth advocacy group, said they would hand out plastic snakes to legislators to make their point--and to encourage Democrats who control the Senate and Republicans who control the House to ditch the maps they’ve drawn in favor of ones drawn by students who won a college redistricting competition.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan commission appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) to advise the legislature on redistricting has issued its report recommending sample legislative boundaries that differ dramatically from those proposed this week by political leaders in the state Senate and House of Delegates.

The 11 member commission’s report, adopted by its members unanimously, begins with a list of principles that guided their work, indicating that the maps they proposed aimed to abide by the principle of one man, one vote, comply with the Voting Rights Act and the state constitution that requires “compact” and “contiguous” districts, while keeping counties, cities and other “communities of interest” together.

 “The Commission showed that it’s possible to create district maps that, compared to existing lines, are more compact overall, that cross fewer municipal and county lines, and that are still in compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the legal standards of the equal population criteria,” said the group’s chairman Bob Holsworth in a statement.  

The House and Senate this week filed maps drawn by political leaders that will form the basis of legislative discussions during next week’s redistricting special session. The General Assembly will also consider new maps for Congressional districts but they have not published proposals for those boundaries.

The commission wrote that redistricting requires trade-offs, but that their maps attempted to reflect a desire by citizens, who attend public hearings held by the commission, that districts should promote interest in the political system and engagement by citizens.

They wrote that citizens who attended their hearings complained bitterly about the current process, in which elected leaders draw their own districts to promote their political party’s interests and protect their incumbents.

But they also wrote that their charge from McDonnell was to propose maps without regard to political considerations and expressed some understanding that the politicians who will gather in a special session now in charge of the process may do otherwise.

“Political considerations such as electoral competitiveness, and the promotion of partisan advantage were not part of the charge presented to the Commission,” they wrote. “The Commission recognizes that the Assembly would adjust any maps that it might examine to reflect these considerations in its obligation to protect the interests of Virginia in the redistricting process.”

They also said the maps they proposed were only one option for fair boundaries and encouraged the legislature to also examine maps drawn by students in part of a recently concluded redistricting competition.