‘A lot at stake for communities of color’: Race takes central role in redistricting fight

‘A lot at stake for communities of color’: Race takes central role in redistricting fight
Dels. Cia Price, D-Newport News, and Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, react after a proposed redistricting amendment proposal narrowly passed the House of Delegates in March. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

When the Virginia House of Delegates was getting ready to pass its 2011 redistricting plan, Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, stood to say something she knew her colleagues might not want to hear.

But, she said, “I just don’t care.”

Speaking on the House floor before a vote on a Republican-crafted legislative map, Ward, a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said she knew her district lines had been drawn to make it easier for her to get re-elected, and that it would have been easy for her to just think about what was “going to be good for me.” But she didn’t think the map represented the type of bipartisan effort voters expect. And that’s why she would vote no, even though it wouldn’t stop the map from passing.

“But I hope that in all the history books, that somewhere, people will remember me as someone that had the nerve to stand up and say no,” she said at the time.

Seven years later, her district was one of 11 ruled racially gerrymandered by a federal court that found House leaders used illegal racial targets to draw Black voters into majority-minority districts. That practice made districts safer for Black incumbents like Ward, while also making neighboring districts easier for White Republicans to win. When a court-appointed expert redrew the racially gerrymandered districts last year, Ward’s district got more White voters and Republicans. But it remained solidly Democratic, and she ran unopposed.

Ward’s 2011 speech highlighted the complicated role of race in the redistricting process, an issue that has become perhaps the most contentious point in this year’s debate over redistricting reform and the proposed constitutional amendment to create a 16-member, bipartisan commission to redraw the maps starting in 2021.

Half the seats would go to sitting legislators appointed by party leaders and half would go to citizens nominated by party leaders and appointed by retired judges. If voters approve the amendment on Nov. 3, the commission will redraw the state’s legislative and congressional maps in 2021. If they don’t, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly will draw the maps and submit them for Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.

Black delegates have been the plan’s most vocal opponents for two years, arguing they shouldn’t be asked to trust political and legal systems that have failed Black communities before. Protections and inclusion for racial minorities, they say, should be a prominent, built-in feature, not an add-on or a promise.

The fact that so many Black Virginians were voting under a racially gerrymandered House map for most of the last decade until the courts addressed it for the 2019 elections, said Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, shows why many members of the Black Caucus have their guard up about a commission that is neither independent or non-partisan.

“There’s a lot at stake for communities of color,” Price said.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.