- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

RICHMOND | A unanimously passed Senate bill that would set up a bipartisan redistricting commission in Virginia died at sunrise Tuesday during a tiny House subcommittee meeting.

On a 4-2 vote, the elections subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee killed state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds’ redistricting bill, along with another that would have authorized no-excuse early voting in Virginia.

Mr. Deeds’ bill would have established a commission with an equal number of members, appointed by both parties’ leaders. The six appointees then would have selected a seventh, independent member.

Mr. Deeds, one of three Democrats running for governor this year, has sponsored the bill for seven years. It passed the Senate 39-0 earlier this month, and Mr. Deeds, who represents Bath County, was irritated that the six-member panel’s four Republicans killed it at a 7 a.m. meeting.

“We may not have succeeded in putting nonpartisan redistricting on the books today, but when I’m governor, we’ll have a nonpartisan redistricting process,” Mr. Deeds said at a news conference.

Seventeen states have some form of nonpartisan or bipartisan reapportionment system that will redraw their legislative and congressional district boundaries after the 2010 U.S. census.

Critics of legislatively drawn redistricting say it tailors districts to protect power, employing computer-assisted cherry-picking of precincts most favorable to incumbents.

Delegate Shannon Valentine, Lynchburg Democrat and sponsor of a companion redistricting bill in the House, said the process has entrenched parties and discouraged legislative cooperation.

“We have created districts that are so polarized that we don’t have to listen to each other and we don’t have to work together,” she said.

In 2001, with the Republicans totally in charge of the process for the first time, redistricting was devastating for Democrats. The Republicans went from a 52-seat majority in the 100-member House to a nearly veto-proof 64-seat majority.

“Over the years, … there are many instances where you could say Democrats did it to Republicans (or) Republicans did it to Democrats, but the truth is we’re creating a system where legislators and politicians are actually choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their leaders,” Ms. Valentine said.

In spite of it, Democrats retook a majority in the Senate two years ago and have pulled to within six seats of retaining a House majority.

Even though they no longer control the House, Senate and governor’s office as they did in 2001 - allowing them to impose their districts on Democrats - Republicans in the House are loath to forfeit whatever leverage their present House majority affords them.

Delegate John Cosgrove, Chesapeake Republican and the chairman of the subcommittee, defended the vote, noting that the state Constitution delegates reapportionment solely to the General Assembly.

“It’s a function of the entire General Assembly, not just bits and pieces of it,” Mr. Cosgrove said.

He also questioned how such a commission would deal with Voting Rights Act requirements that districts’ minority voting strength not be diluted.

“At some point in time, we’ll probably do a redistricting bill, but I think everyone has to have a chance to be comfortable with the whole concept,” Mr. Cosgrove said.

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