RICHMOND — A group of Virginia residents sued state elections officials Monday over 11 legislative districts — including some in Northern Virginia — charging that they violated the state Constitution by enforcing election maps that too easily protect incumbents.
The plaintiffs argue that during the last round of redistricting, in 2011, the General Assembly drew the districts to give incumbents the best chance at holding on to their seats at the expense of geographical compactness, which the Constitution requires. If successful, the suit, which is the third recent court challenge to the state’s elections maps, could scrap the maps and send vulnerable lawmakers scrambling to compete in newly drawn districts.
The House and Senate districts in question are spread all over Virginia and include parts of Prince William County, Manassas, Manassas Park, Fairfax County and Arlington County.
Attorney Wyatt Durrette, a former Republican delegate, filed the suit in Richmond Circuit Court for OneVirginia2021, a nonprofit group pushing for nonpartisan redistricting.
“Our goal is to influence the courts to require the legislature to honor the Constitution when it draws political districts and not subjugate the Constitution to blatant political gerrymandering,” he told reporters outside the courthouse.
The lawsuit targets five House districts and six Senate districts. In the overwhelmingly Republican House, bills intended to reduce the influence of politics on redistricting have quietly disappeared in subcommittees without going to a floor vote.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said the process for drawing maps works fine, and he’s confident that the districts will withstand the challenge.
“Unfortunately, this is another political lawsuit that will cost taxpayers,” Howell spokesman Matt Moran said. “Contiguity and compactness were one of the top priorities used in developing the current House districts.”
But the Senate, where Republicans have a one-vote edge, passed three nonpartisan redistricting bills in this year’s session only to see them die in the House.
Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Powhatan) said political map making is partly to blame for an increasingly partisan Richmond — and one of the reasons he’s planning to retire in January.
“It’s just gotten so sophisticated it’s very easy to almost dictate the winners and losers in regard to redistricting,” he said.
Asked to explain the chambers’ polar opposite records on nonpartisan redistricting, he said: “That’s just somebody providing instructions to say, ‘Don’t let any of it out,’ ” he said of House leaders who he said were responsible for killing the Senate bills that didn’t make it out of committee. But he added of the Senate efforts to change to redistrict: “I think the people are owed a vote.”
Former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II, a Republican and longtime advocate for a better system, said gerrymandering “distorts the political discussion” by chopping up communities.
“It’s totally pro-incumbent; it’s incumbents picking their voters. I’d love to see . . . incumbents’ home addresses ignored in the drawing of maps,” he said, hinting at the lengths lawmakers go to to distort their district boundaries.
Monday’s lawsuit is the latest test of the way the General Assembly redraws its districts.
Two previous lawsuits argued that lawmakers illegally packed African American voters into both state and federal districts, diluting their influence elsewhere. One of the suits challenging a single congressional district was successful, and a federal court is sorting out a new map; in the second, judges are still deliberating challenges to a dozen House districts.
Both legal efforts were funded by the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, which calls itself a “national organization in charge of advancing Democratic congressional redistricting efforts following the 2010 census.”
Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, said his organization is funded by private contributions and does not disclose its donors, but is separate from the trust.
Monday’s suit was brought by more than a dozen people, a broad range of Virginians that includes Sandra D. Bowen, who was the secretary of administration under now-Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) when he was governor; Robert S. Ukrop, a philanthropist and former president of the Richmond grocery chain Ukrop’s; Dale Swanson, of the Fredericksburg Tea Party Patriots; and Dianne Blais, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia.
The state Board of Elections, its three members and Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortés are named as defendants. A spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who represents the state, declined to comment.
The lawsuit argues that all of the 11 targeted districts were intentionally drawn in serpentine shapes to include enough partisan households to ensure the reelection of incumbents. One district was described as a “jagged, U-shaped district surrounding and interlocking,” with another district “like a piece of a poorly designed puzzle.”
In recent years, redistricting in Virginia has helped attract candidates who appeal to the most conservative and liberal extremes, which advocates for nonpartisan redistricting blame for bringing Washington’s gridlock and polarization to Richmond.