Virginia Redistricting Commission Chair appears to quit during meeting
The Virginia Redistricting Commission met for nearly six hours yesterday and failed to reach consensus on a new legislative maps to submit to the General Assembly. The future of the group is in doubt.
Until this year, the majority in each house of the General Assembly controlled how the lines were laid out. Legislation and a Constitutional referendum passed in 2020 created the commission.
The 16-member group reached an impasse Friday over how to proceed in efforts to draw districts to ensure minority representation in the 100-member House of Delegates and the 40-member Senate. Friday saw their first meeting after a week of virtual public hearings. They have until the end of Monday to complete their work. (state code)
The stalemate hinges on the partisan nature of the committee with eight Democrats and eight Republicans. Each side had different legal counsel and cartographers who came up with different maps.
Part of the discussion centered around a five-page memo from Senator George Barker, one of the Democratic Commissioners. He pointed to a 2014 federal court ruling that declared Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District unconstitutional because the boundaries were deliberately drawn so African Americans made up more than 50 percent of voters. Barker said that would limit Black influence in other districts in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“What you have is a situation where they have the ability to make either of those districts more than 50 percent African American, but drew two districts that were between 40 and 47 percent that were African American voters,” Barker said. “So even though it were districts that could have been drawn to have majorities, what the court determined was that it was not necessary to do that so they came up with lower figures. So one of the questions becomes, can we do the same thing here?””
Barker wrote the memo to raise the question with the attorneys for the Republican and Democratic sides. At issue is Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which Virginia violated in both the aforementioned Congressional districts as well as in legislative districts in a case known as Bethune Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections.
Attorney Kareem Crayton represents the Democrats and said he supported Barker’s position.
“Just because you can mathematically does not mean that you should, and in fact, if you do it without justification you run afoul potentially of an equal protection violation, very similar to one that got Virginia into trouble last time in Bethune Hill,” Crayton said.
Representing the Republicans, lawyer Bryan Tyson said the issue was putting too large of an emphasis on race in drawing districts.
“Under the Constitution, you cannot draw primarily based on race, so if race predominates in the decision-making for a district, regardless of where that is, you have a problem with the Constitution,” Tyson said. “There is established precedent that if you need to deviate from your criteria — keeping jurisdictions whole, communities of interest, whatever that may be — to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, you can consider race as a much higher factor in that process, and that’s the key really here.”
Those competing legal interpretations set the tone for the debate which covered many nuances about how previous districts were drawn and how the next ones should be drawn. There was debate about the number of majority-Black districts as well as opportunities for minorities to be elected by forming coalitions in those districts.
One member said he was concerned the Commission did not seem to be making progress.
“I feel like we probably need like a countdown clock to midnight on Monday somewhere in the room,” said Commissioner Sean Kumar.
Just before the first morning break, co-chair Greta Harris reminded the Commission of what citizen comments have been. Harris is a Democrat.
“People wanted us to first and foremost to try to be fair, to have compact districts, to have districts that try to hold communities together either at the city or county level wherever possible,” Harris said. “And we’ve done that. Both maps do a good job of that and I think there is general agreement on the commission that the maps, the variety of maps that are being presented, are better than our current maps.”
Harris said the task before the Commission was to get the legal and moral clarity around how the lines should be drawn. She suggested creating a decision tree for guidance.
“Specifically on how we’re going to address race because we will not be able to have a single map for either house unless we can have as a commission can have clarity for how we’re going to address communities of color,” Harris said.
New Democratic maps posted
After the virtual public hearings were held this week, the Democratic consultants uploaded two new maps. One for the House was posted on Thursday. Their updated Senate map was posted uploaded at the beginning of Friday’s meeting and some Republicans questions that. (B5 statewide Senate map)
Crayton said he thought there had been a directive to update the maps with feedback from the hearings.
“We think you should look at all of these maps as iterations of what could be your final choice, or at least the start of your final choice,” Crayton said. “But I would caution the Commission from letting which map was submitted when, because this happened that sort of both of our sides has misunderstood maybe things that were said and maybe produced more maps and surprised the other side or not. I think that’s less relevant than the big question at hand which is what you all as a Commission are going to do to properly represent African American, Latino, Asian American political opportunity in this state with respect to these particular laws.”
James Abrenio is a citizen commissioner and Democrat who expressed concern that they had not been able to advance to a single map in order to have those nuamced and tough discussions.
“We’re talking about abstract things here and we can’t get rubber to the road,” Abrenio said. “It’s just confusing and we’re running out of time and I’m concerned that the confusion is almost designed intentionally to be there so we don’t have to start taking votes.”
Harris suggested that the map drawers on each side go through the latest changes. One Commission objected to using B5 as a starting point for the Senate.
“There’s zero percent chance I’m going to start from a map that just got presented to me moments ago,” said Senator Ryan McDougle, a Republican who represents Mechanicsville.
Abrenio suggested taking one map from each party as a starting point.
“And then we at least orient the discussion, but if we just keep on going in circles, we’re running out of time,” Abrenio said. “Either this is going to happen or it is not, but if it’s going to happen on a parallel path, let’s just go home now!”
However, consensus was never reached on what map to begin with.
“All we’re trying to do is get a starting point for each house,” Harris said.
Dueling motions; both fail
For about an hour or so, different mapmakers reviewed their majority-minority districts and gave demographic percentages. At the conclusion, Delegate Marcus Simon offered to make a motion to proceed with the latest Republican map for the House and the latest Democratic map for the Senate.
“If we can start with A7 and B5 and pick a map to keep drilling down on, we have a chance I think to get somewhere today and tomorrow and by Monday,” Simon said.
Harris prepared to call the motion to a vote.
“If there are no other questions, then will you call the roll?” Harris said to the clerk.
“Madame Chair, I want to make a substitute motion,” said Senator McDougle. “And the substitute motion is that we work on the Senate maps.”
McDougle continued to object to the recently-updated Democratic map being used as a starting point. His motion was to start with the A5 map for the Senate and did not take a position on the House map.
Abrenio suggested voting on McDougle’s motion first, and then Simon’s motion.
“None of this seems collaborative,” Abrenio said. “It’s actually the opposite. We have two sets of lawyers, two sets of map drawers, and two sets of maps.”
The vote was 8-8 on party lines and deadlocked. Then Delegate Simon’s motion was voted on.
Democratic Delegate Delores McQuinn made these comments before this second vote.
“I just want to reiterate in case we are not hearing, that this is a starting point,” McQuinn said. “So if we get down the road a little bit and decide we don’t want to use either of the maps, then I guess we could decide that we’re going to throw them out the window. But it is a starting point. It is to begin the process to get us beyond this impasse.”
Harris asked to call the vote, but one Republican member tried to make a last comment and another tried to call for a recess. Harris asked five times to call the vote, but the motion again deadlocked on.
Harris said the impasse likely meant the process could no longer continue.
“And I think what voters wanted at the very beginning of this process was for this to not be a partisan situation but it is,” Harris said. “At this point, I really don’t see the need for this to continue. We gave it a shot as a commission. We tried to come together. It’s a very complicated process. Lots of different competing criteria. But I would say that we are done.”
Senator Barker said he was not ready to quit and he wanted to move forward. He made a motion to proceed with a comparison of both Senate maps. That motion never got a second.
Republican Senator Bill Stanley said part of the public’s business is to break impasses. He urged the Commission to continue.
“I’m not someone that just throws in the towel and gives up because we can’t reach a consensus at this point in time,” Stanley said.
Senator Barker, a Democrat, suggested the work could still be completed.
“I still feel optimistic in terms of we can get this done and the best thing and easiest thing to do is to start with the Senate map because there are fewer districts, fewer conflicts,” Barker said.
However, Harris said she did not want to proceed without knowing where the conversation would start for the House of Delegates.
“Look, it’s not an either or,” Harris said. “It’s both or nothing but at this point if we’re going to do a Kumbaya down the Senate road, that’s fine, but what’s the starting point for the House?”
Delegate Simon said he could read the political math and sided with citizen legislators from his party.
“At the end of this process we have to get to a supermajority, right? And we haven’t been able to break eight votes on any of these substantive issues,” Simon said.
Republican Commissioner Jose A. Feliciano, Jr. said he was also not ready to quit and explained why he votes against Delegate Simon’s motion.
“I don’t necessarily dislike the map that we voted down,” Feliciano said. “My problem with that map is that we got that map today.”
Harris calls it quits
There was a final recess. Many of the members initially did not come back and a motion to adjourn was called. All of the Republicans voted no but they were joined by two Democrats.
Harris was not one of them.
“Really working on transforming communities, you have to build trust,” Harris said. “And you have to believe that people sitting across the table from you are really sincere in their shared desired to make a positive difference,” Harris said. “At this point I don’t feel as though all members of the Commission are sincere in their willingness to compromise and to create fair maps for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Then, Harris appeared to quit.
“I will remove myself from the Commission at this point,” Harris said.
At that point, other Commissioners began leaving. McDougle addressed the chair.
“I think three citizen individuals have walked out of the room and we have one citizen that was via electronic, so does that mean we have no quorum at this point,” said McDougle.
“We have lost quorum, yes sir,” said the clerk.
Having lost the vote to adjourn, the Democrats broke quorum anyway, stopping the discussion. Today’s scheduled meeting was canceled and there is one on the books for Monday beginning at 8 a.m.
Mackenzie Babichenko is the Republican co-chair.
“As the only chair, I likely can call a meeting,” Babichenko said. “Whether we will have a quorum at that time remains to be seen.”
For more coverage, take a look at:
- Va. Redistricting Commission implodes as Republicans reject compromise and Democrats walk out, Virginia Mercury, October 8, 2021
- ‘I think our work here is done.’ Virginia’s redistricting commission is staring at failure, Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 8, 2021
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