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Census data delay could freeze Virginia House districts, raises prospect of elections for three straight years

Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) sits on Virginia’s Redistricting Commission.
Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) sits on Virginia’s Redistricting Commission. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — Delays in U.S. census data have disrupted plans to draw new districts for this year's elections of all 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, raising the possibility that the races will be run under the old political map.

On top of that uncertainty, the General Assembly has passed legislation to move all local and municipal elections to November, which could force more than a dozen cities and more than 100 towns around the state to reschedule council and school board elections that usually take place in May.

The census delay, announced on Friday, makes it virtually impossible to hold to the redistricting schedule outlined in Virginia’s constitution, said Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax), who sits on the state’s bipartisan Redistricting Commission.

That means races in House of Delegates districts are likely to take place under current political boundaries, Simon said.

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New districts would more closely reflect the changing demographics of the state and could affect the balance of power in the legislature. Democrats took control of the House just two years ago by flipping districts that had been held by Republicans. ­Changes in boundaries could alter voting patterns and further shift regional power — for instance, populous suburbs could gain seats and dwindling rural areas could lose them.

Virginia draws new districts every 10 years based on census data. That information was initially set to arrive by the end of March, and the state constitution provides 45 to 60 days after that for new maps to be drawn.

But the Census Bureau said that because of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, all states would receive data on Sept. 30 — not long before the Nov. 2 elections.

“It’s just practically impossible to get the data in time to go through the process and draw districts and conduct an election under new maps,” Simon said.

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If elections proceed under existing maps — which were redrawn in 2019 under federal supervision to correct for racial gerrymandering — that would raise questions about what comes next: Would all 100 delegates run again next year under new maps, and then again in 2023 as scheduled? Or just keep the old districts for a full two-year term?

Simon said lawmakers are just beginning to discuss options. There is precedent for holding elections for three straight years, which happened in the early 1980s when a newly redrawn map was found to be racially gerrymandered. Elections went ahead under the old map, then took place the following year under a corrected map and again, as scheduled, the year after that.

Meanwhile, municipalities that hold council and school board elections in May — all in even-numbered years — might have to change their schedules under new legislation that passed the House on Monday. The bill had cleared the Senate last month on a 19-to-19 vote, with Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) casting the tiebreaker.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has not said whether he will sign the bill, only that he is reviewing it.

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Introduced by Sen. Lionel Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake), the measure is aimed at putting local elections on the ballot alongside state and federal races to ensure greater turnout.

Simon, who guided the bill through the House, said holding local elections in May was a practice aimed at keeping turnout low so that “only the right people” voted — insiders and, historically, White people.

Many localities already hold their elections in the fall, but most cities in the Hampton Roads region schedule theirs for May. In Northern Virginia, Fairfax City holds May elections, as do communities including Vienna, Middleburg, Haymarket, Occoquan and Quantico.

Leaders in many of those localities have argued against the change.

“Our concern was trying to preserve the nonpartisan nature of our elections,” said Fairfax Mayor David L. Meyer. Mingling local races with hyperpolitical state and federal elections could make it more difficult to avoid partisanship, he said. That, in turn, could make it harder for federal workers to participate in local campaigns under the Hatch Act, which prohibits civil servants from participating in some types of partisan activity.

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Democrats who control both chambers of the General Assembly have also passed a state version of the federal Voting Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination against protected classes of voters, such as racial and ethnic minorities, and empowering the state attorney general to investigate alleged violations. The measure is aimed at preventing localities from passing last-minute policy ­changes that affect access to polling places.

A version sponsored by Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) has cleared both chambers on party-line votes, while an identical House version sponsored by Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News) is before a Senate committee.

If Northam signs either bill, Virginia would become the first state in the South to approve such a law.

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