RICHMOND — The Republican-led Senate on Friday muscled through a House-drawn map drawing new lines for the state's 11 congressional districts in one of the GOP's first noteworthy displays of their newfound power.
The map, which largely shores up existing districts of the state's incumbents, both Republican and Democrat, has sped through the 2012 General Assembly after the House and Senate were locked in a months-long stalemate over the matter last year.
But Democrats held a 22-18 advantage at that time. Now, with a 20-20 split, Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote, and an overwhelming Republican majority in the House, the plan cleared both chambers in less than two weeks.
With Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, absent Friday, the map did not require a tie-breaking vote from Mr. Bolling, advancing on a party-line 20-19 vote over objections from Democrats that it was unconstitutional and dilutes the voting power of minorities.
"This plan is one that protects communities of interest and the core of existing districts so that citizens will know who their congressman is," said Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican and chairman of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.
Sen. Mamie E. Locke, Hampton Democrat and sponsor of the Senate redistricting map that created a second minority-influence district in the state, said the plan "clearly is designed to protect incumbents."
"It was wrong then, and it's wrong now," she said.
Democratic caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, argued that the bill is both unconstitutional, since the state Constitution directed the General Assembly to approve the lines in 2011, and violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting strength of minorities. The plan increases the black population in Rep. Bobby Scott's 3rd District — the state's sole minority-majority district — from 56.2 percent to 59.5 percent.
Mr. Obenshain, however, said he received assurances from the attorney general's office that the plan complied with the Voting Rights Act. And during a Tuesday committee meeting, deputy Attorney General Wesley G. Russell Jr. said the interpretation of the Constitution did not implicitly bar redistricting from occurring in any other year, citing a number of non-Census years in which the legislature passed redistricting plans.
Should the governor sign the map into law, it still must be pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice because of the state's history of racial discrimination at the polls. That process can take up to 60 days.
Two lawsuits also are pending — one in federal court, one in state court — that ask a judicial panel to draw the lines, again claiming that the assembly failed in its constitutional duties by not finishing the maps in 2011.
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