Virginia lawmakers return Monday to Richmond for a special session to redraw the state’s congressional map, facing a Sept. 1 deadline after a federal court ruling they illegally packed black voters into Rep. Bobby Scott’s southeastern district.
Some Democrats are eyeing big changes, with state Sen. Chap Petersen planning to introduce a map that would shuffle several incumbents out of their current seats and others touting a plan they say is more representative of the state.
But Republicans, who control the legislature and hold an 8-to-3 majority in the congressional delegation, say it won’t be that easy.
“It’s going to take a month,” said Delegate Dave Albo, Fairfax Republican and chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee. “This is really complicated it’s just the beginning of the process on Monday.”
At issue is Mr. Scott’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes parts of Richmond and meanders along the James River toward Hampton Roads, extending to Norfolk. Judges have said the current congressional map unconstitutionally dilutes the influence of black voters in the state by concentrating them in that district.
Mr. Scott’s district is bordered by four Republican-held congressional districts: Rep. Rob Wittman’s 1st District, which stretches from Yorktown up to Prince William County; Rep. Scott Rigell’s Virginia Beach-based 2nd District; Rep. Randy Forbes’ 4th District, which stretches from Chesapeake to north and west of Richmond; and Rep. Dave Brat’s 7th District, which stretches from Richmond north to Culpeper.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University who has served as an adviser to an independent redistricting commission in the state, speculated that Mr. Forbes’ district might be made more Democratic.
“If Democrats had their way, they would probably make both the 4th and the 2nd either Democratic-leaning or at least Democratically competitive,” he said. “But in the scenario where they’re going to end up having to negotiate with Republicans, I’d imagine they would take the 4th.”
Mr. Petersen, Fairfax Democrat, said he will introduce a plan that mirrors the winning “nonpartisan” map in a 2011 competition that, among other things, would shuffle several incumbents out of their districts.
“I was thinking democracy and good government is a good thing — that’s what I was thinking,” Mr. Petersen said, adding that he had no expectation of the plan moving forward in the Republican-controlled legislature.
Democratic leaders in the legislature have unveiled their own plan that would reduce the black voting-age population in the 3rd District from about 56 percent so that the African-American population is between 40 percent and 50 percent in both the 3rd and 4th districts, among other changes.
They said five districts in their plan are likely to vote Democratic and five likely to vote Republican, with GOP Rep. Robert Hurt’s 5th District ending up as a “swing” area.
“It is a purple plan,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat. “It is not red; it is not blue.”
A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently denied Republican House and Senate leaders an extension past the Sept. 1 deadline, saying they failed to show they would be likely to win an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or suffer “irreparable injury or prejudice” by adhering to the court’s order for a new map by Sept. 1.
In a dissent, Judge Robert E. Payne said he would have granted the extension. He pointed out that during the appeal process, the Supreme Court issued a high-profile ruling that directed a lower court to re-examine whether Republican lawmakers in Alabama relied too heavily on race in drawing that state’s congressional districts.
The judge wrote that it would be appropriate to get further guidance from the Supreme Court before requiring the General Assembly to redraw the maps.
Elsewhere, Florida lawmakers are also in the midst of redrawing congressional lines, and activists are trying to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s dismissal of a challenge to Maryland’s congressional map.
Behind legal challenges to redistricting in Virginia is Marc E. Elias, a lawyer with the firm Perkins Coie who has been involved with challenges to voting laws elsewhere. Mr. Elias is also the presidential campaign lawyer for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has hammered Republicans on the issue of voting and ballot access issues on the campaign trail.
Virginia Democrats argue that in a state where they have won all statewide elections since 2009, they should logically have more than three of the 11 congressional seats.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, who called for the special session that starts Monday and has advocated for nonpartisan redistricting, applauded the Democratic leaders’ plan and said he fears Republicans will “attempt to tinker with the old map just enough to get it past federal judges. The three rulings from those judges suggest they are in no mood for half-measures.”
“As I stated in my letter on July 28 to General Assembly leaders, my door is open to anyone willing to work together on a serious plan that is responsive to the courts and to the demands of the citizens of Virginia,” he said. “That invitation still stands.”
Meanwhile, he is co-chairing a new fund run by the Democratic Governors Association that will aim to target gubernatorial races in battleground states with an eye on influencing new congressional maps after the next U.S. Census in 2020.
“Governors play a critical role in the redistricting process,” Mr. McAuliffe said in a recent DGA release. “The DGA’s ‘Unrig The Map’ effort is about ensuring more Democratic governors can be at the table in 2020 to prevent the kind of far-right gerrymandering we saw in 2010.”