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In divided vote, Va. Redistricting Commission chooses to hire partisan lawyers

Virginia’s population might grow over the next decade, but it could be slower than it’s been in...
Virginia’s population might grow over the next decade, but it could be slower than it’s been in the past, according to population projections by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.(Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Published: Jun. 8, 2021 at 10:58 AM EDT
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The Virginia Redistricting Commission rejected an attempt Monday to at least try to hire nonpartisan lawyers, choosing instead to seek two sets of partisan attorneys to advise the new body as it redraws the state’s political districts later this year.

Opinion was split as the commission made the first major decision since its creation last winter, with Democratic-appointed citizen members overruled by most of the elected Democrats and all Republicans on the 16-person commission.

In a series of 10-4 votes, the commission decided against pursuing nonpartisan council, choosing to issue two requests for proposals meant to select one Democratic firm and one Republican firm. Greta Harris, a Democratic co-chair of the commission, would have been the fifth vote in favor of nonpartisan lawyers but she said she had to leave the meeting early to catch a flight.

Though the lawyers hired by the commission won’t be drawing district lines themselves, their advice could have a significant influence by shaping what the commission prioritizes and determining whether its decisions comply with all various laws meant to ensure a fair process. Citizen-led redistricting commissions in other states, including Arizona, have also chosen to hire two partisan firms as a way to avoid mistrust and infighting over the selection of a single firm.

Several citizen members argued that issuing a third, neutral RFP, even if only to gauge interest from firms that could offer nonpartisan advice, would send a signal to Virginia voters that the commission was trying to depoliticize the once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative and congressional districts.

“What the public has done here in creating this commission is an effort to do things differently,” said Democratic commission member James Abrenio, referring to the ballot referendum Virginians overwhelmingly approved last year to strip the General Assembly of its redistricting power and give it to a new, bipartisan commission made up of both citizens and sitting legislators.

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

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