- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 8, 2015

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) - The chief architect of a Republican legislative redistricting plan said Wednesday that race was just one of many factors used to redraw boundaries in Virginia’s House of Delegates, disputing claims that the redistricting sought at all costs to pack black voters into a dozen districts.

Delegate Chris Jones of Suffolk testified in front of a three-judge panel overseeing the redistricting trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. The GOP-controlled House of Delegates is defending itself against a civil lawsuit alleging that the 2011 redistricting unconstitutionally crowded black voters into 12 districts, limiting their influence in the rest of the state.

Specifically, the suit alleges that the plan Jones and GOP leadership pushed through the House arbitrarily required that the 12 districts have at least 55 percent black voting-age population. The suit says that amounts to racial gerrymandering, when race becomes the overriding factor in drawing boundary maps.

Jones testified, though, that race was only one of many factors he sought to take into account. He said he tried to accommodate requests from 75 to 80 delegates in the 100-member body who sought to tweak lines, sometimes to draw out precincts where they had historically performed poorly. Sometimes delegates wanted the boundaries changed to draw out a potential primary challenger, he said.

In court papers, lawyers for House Speaker William Howell said that Jones had to take race into account in drawing the districts. They cited Virginia’s history under Jim Crow of suppressing the black vote and noted that, under the federal Voting Rights Act, the state’s maps could be rejected by the Justice Department if they were seen as diluting the black vote.

The plaintiffs, though, allege that the redistricting plan went too far in the other direction. Packing 55 percent black majorities into those districts was unnecessary, they say, and diluted African-American influence in the other 88 districts. They presented testimony Tuesday from Richmond Democrat Jennifer McClellan, an African-American who saw her district’s black population increase from 46 percent to 55 percent in the 2011 redistricting. McClellan said she is confident she could have won her district if it had stayed at 46 percent.

Other members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, though, said they supported the 55 percent mark and voted for the redistricting plan.

If the judges side with the plaintiffs, the General Assembly could be forced to redraw the boundary maps.

The three-judge panel will issue its ruling at a later date.

The law firm that filed the suit has won similar cases. Last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond in a 2-1 ruling ordered the General Assembly to draw new congressional maps because the existing boundaries illegally pack voters into the 3rd Congressional District, represented by Democrat Bobby Scott.

One of the three judges hearing the current case, Robert Payne, wrote the dissent in the congressional case.

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