RICHMOND — Democrats filed a plan Wednesday to redraw 29 House of Delegates districts to comply with a court order against racial gerrymandering, one day before the legislature convenes a special session to take up the issue.
But Republican House leaders were cool to the plan and said they are sticking by a pledge to appeal the court’s ruling.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled on June 26 that 11 Virginia House districts drawn in 2011 were an unconstitutional effort to concentrate African American voters. The judges ordered the state to come up with a new set of districts by Oct. 30.
Del. David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville), the House minority leader, said Wednesday that Democratic delegates worked over the past several weeks to draw new boundaries. Instead of using race as a criterion, he said, the delegates tried to preserve communities of interest.
The resulting plan (H.B. 7001) would cause changes in several districts surrounding the 11 at the heart of the case, leading to a total of 29 districts with new lines. Most of the districts affected by the plan are around Richmond, Hampton and Norfolk.
Toscano initially said that none of the new boundaries pushed two delegates into a single district, but it appeared, as the plan circulated Wednesday afternoon, that two pairs of Republican delegates would, in fact, be in that position.
The Democrats said they also tried to eliminate as many split precincts as possible — areas where voters might find two sets of candidates on the ballot, which caused uncertainty in last year’s House races.
Those elections, in which all 100 House seats were at stake, saw Democrats make huge gains and whittle a two-thirds Republican majority down to 51-49.
Democrats are hoping to win their first majority in nearly two decades in next year’s elections, and the redistricting could be an important factor.
While there are currently 41 split precincts, Toscano said, the Democrats’ plan shrinks that to 14. He said that delegates had assembled the plan with cooperation from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s office but that they had not yet run it past Senate Democrats. The Senate would have to sign off on any plan.
The bill setting out the redistricting was filed with the legislature on Wednesday by Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Richmond), who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.
“We are moving forward with responding to the court order, working collectively, hopefully across party lines and with the governor’s office to craft a map that meets the criteria set forward by the court order,” Bagby said.
Republicans spent Wednesday afternoon studying the plan and said they didn’t like what they saw.
“After our initial review it’s clear that this is hypocritical partisan power grab that would fail to pass legal muster,” House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said via email. He said the plan grouped Republicans into unfriendly districts and overtly used race to engineer a more Democratic House.
House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and other GOP leaders of the House have filed a request that the district court delay the Oct. 30 requirement so the decision can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the full legislature will convene Thursday at Northam’s behest to take up redistricting, Republicans have made it clear that they plan to pursue their legal appeals before coming up with new boundaries. Cox has suggested that the legislature might begin making plans for hearings around the state to get input from the public.
“I think their strategy is delay, delay, delay,” Toscano said. “We see nothing from the Republicans.”
He said the House ought to quickly assign Bagby’s bill to the Privileges and Elections Committee and suggested that a plan could be voted on shortly. There’s no time for public hearings around the state, Toscano said, because of the pressure of meeting the court’s deadline.
Such widespread public input is more appropriate for the statewide redistricting that is done every 10 years, he said.
Cox has pointed out that some of the Democrats now calling for new districts voted for them in the 2011 plan, which was passed with bipartisan support in a legislature controlled by Republicans.
Toscano dismissed that point. “We have an issue that this map has been declared unconstitutional,” he said. “We as legislators have the responsibility of fixing that problem.”