RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is calling the General Assembly into special session on Aug. 30 to redraw legislative districts that a federal court deemed had been racially gerrymandered.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled on June 26 that the lines for 11 House of Delegates districts had been drawn with the purpose of concentrating black voters.
The 2-to-1 ruling was a victory for Democrats, who hope that new district boundaries will help them retake control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades. Last year’s elections wiped out a 2-to-1 GOP advantage in the 100-seat House, leaving Republicans with a narrow 51-to-49 majority.
The court ordered that new legislative boundaries be drawn by Oct. 30 for use in next year’s state elections.
“It is in the public interest for the General Assembly to finalize constitutional maps as soon as possible — Virginians deserve that clarity,” Northam wrote in the proclamation he signed Monday to call the legislature back to Richmond. “I am calling a special session so we can focus our collective attention on doing what’s right: working together to draw lines that represent Virginians fairly.”
But Republicans who control the General Assembly have appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, and have asked the District Court to suspend the Oct. 30 deadline, arguing that the lower court erred in finding the districts to be discriminatory against African Americans.
“We fully intend to continue to pursue both our request for a stay from the Eastern District Court and our appeal to the United States Supreme Court,” House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said in an emailed response to Northam’s action.
The 11 districts are in Hampton Roads and greater Richmond. But changes to those districts could have a cascading effect, altering the demographics of some of the 22 adjacent districts.
The boundaries were drawn after the 2010 Census, when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats controlled the Senate. With new boundaries, Republicans took control of the Senate and extended their majority in the House — until last year’s wave of Democratic victories in reaction to an unpopular President Trump.
Cox said the legislature would convene as mandated by the governor but noted that Republicans will file a response this week to a request for more information by the Eastern District Court as it considers postponing the Oct. 30 deadline.
“Drawing a map that can withstand legal scrutiny is neither a quick nor simple process,” Cox said, adding that it will require holding committee meetings and seeking input around the state.
The August special session, Cox said, gives Northam and Democratic House leaders a chance to “demonstrate a willingness to engage in a good-faith effort. We look forward to reviewing their proposal.”
Republican leaders were peeved by Northam’s insistence on a special session while the case is on appeal. It’s the second issue in as many weeks to create partisan friction, after Northam earlier proposed using a windfall from federal tax cuts to provide tax relief to low-income Virginians.
Cox and other GOP lawmakers accused the governor of neglecting middle class taxpayers. On Monday in a Twitter post, Cox’s spokesman drew a connection between the tax proposal and the announcement of a special session for redistricting: “Given how @GovernorVA’s tax plan has been received, I would want to change the subject too,” Parker Slaybaugh wrote.
Northam campaigned for governor on a pledge to seek nonpartisan redistricting maps, but he is not advocating for an outside body to draw the lines this time. Instead, he is calling on the General Assembly to work across the aisle to approve a plan.
There is no time frame on the special session called by Northam, but it would be working under the Oct. 30 deadline unless Republicans succeed in getting that date suspended.
“The governor’s hope is always that we can do this the Virginia way and sit down at the table and do this right,” said spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel. “And the right thing to do is to come up with constitutional districts.”
Virginia legislators do not have a good recent track record on the topic. When federal courts found three congressional districts to be unconstitutional in 2015, lawmakers in the General Assembly were unable to come up with new district lines. A panel of judges wound up imposing their own redistricting plan.