- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Virginia legislators will gather in Richmond on Thursday to advance competing congressional redistricting maps that reflect partisan divides over how much influence to give black voters.

At issue is whether the Democrat-led Senate will prevail in its efforts to turn Rep. J. Randy Forbes’ 4th District congressional seat into a minority-majority district by reducing the number of blacks in the district held by Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, the only black member of Virginia’s 11-person delegation.

The shift would give black voters significant influence in two districts, instead of just one. Mr. Scott has said he can still win re-election under the proposed Senate map, which drops the black population in his district to 42 percent from 56.4 percent, based on 2000 census figures.

The disputes over black representation are reminiscent of debates in April as lawmakers labored over new boundaries for the 40 Senate seats and 100 House seats in the state legislature.

Every state is charged with redrawing political districts to reflect population shifts revealed in the U.S. census, taken every 10 years.

They must preserve minority-majority districts to comply with a special mandate contained in the 1965 Voting Rights Act on states with a history of discrimination. While there’s no requirement to create a second district with a significant minority presence, Democrats say it’s only fair to blacks, who comprise nearly 20 percent of Virginia residents.

“I’d be very reluctant to vote for a plan that does not include the two African-American districts,” said Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat. “They have to be represented in accordance with their strength and the population as a whole.”

But Delegate William R. Janis, Glen Allen Republican and patron of the House plan, says he thinks reducing minority influence in Mr. Scott’s district may violate the Voting Rights Act — even though the Democratic plan essentially shifts the minority-majority district to Mr. Forbes’ seat.

“I don’t think it’s clear you could do what they’re doing,” Mr. Janis said. “I’d rather go with certainty than uncertainty.”

The plan proposed by Senate Democrats expands Mr. Scott’s district closer to Hampton, Newport News and Norfolk, removing its Richmond territory. In contrast, a Republican plan already approved by the House 86-8 increases the percentage of black voters from 53 percent to 57 percent in the district.

Lawmakers anticipate that consensus will not be reached until sometime in July. On Thursday, each chamber is expected to reject the other’s plan and a conference committee will be created so a smaller group of members can start negotiating toward an agreement.

Some Democrats have expressed a preference for the House plan, saying they have concerns about reducing minority influence in Mr. Scott’s district too much. But Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, Arlington Democrat and member of the Privileges and Elections Committee, said support for increasing minority influence is strong.

“I think it’s a pretty high priority,” Mrs. Whipple said. “Obviously we’ll have to see how discussions go.”

Regardless of how negotiations for the 11 congressional districts go down, they’re sure to be less rushed than when lawmakers were trying to redraw 140 state districts in time for the August primary elections, said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, Upperville Republican.

“Tomorrow is probably not going to be as salacious and exciting,” Mrs. Vogel said. “We have more luxury with time and as a matter of complexity, it is far less complex.”