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Va. Redistricting Commission approves neutrality rule, deadlocks on use of race

The Capitol at dusk.
The Capitol at dusk.(Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 8:02 AM EDT
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The Virginia Redistricting Commission voted Wednesday to formally instruct its map-drawers not to look at political data or information showing where incumbents live as they draw new General Assembly and congressional districts.

The bipartisan panel’s unanimous vote represents a formal commitment to the fairer process voters envisioned when they approved the commission last year. It’s also something of a gamble, resting on hopes that General Assembly members will vote for neutral maps even if they jeopardize the careers of individual legislators.

The ramifications of that approach were already on display in draft maps drawn for Northern Virginia that paired multiple Democratic incumbents in the same district and created some open districts with no incumbent at all. Incumbent pairing occurred in drafts drawn by both Democratic and Republican consultants, but the Democratic consulting team later acknowledged it had looked at incumbency to make tweaks to its original proposal.

To address the issue as it prepares to take up draft General Assembly maps for the entire state early next week, the commission adopted the following instructions to its map drawers:

(1) You may not consider political data, including election results or incumbent addresses while drawing your maps.

(2) You must clearly disclose on your maps every district where, prior to receiving this direction, you considered any political data in the map-drawing process.

The commission itself is not expecting to look at political and incumbency data until later in the process, step consultants have said is necessary to ensure the final proposal isn’t unduly tilted to one party and doesn’t have a disparate impact on minority incumbents.

The commission also approved guidance for map-drawers on preserving communities of interest — defined as “a neighborhood or any geographically defined group of people living in an area who share similar social, cultural, and economic interests” — and the boundaries of cities, counties and towns.

The group had debated prioritizing county lines over cities, the idea being that counties are more permanent fixtures of Virginia geography while cities are created through charters and are occasionally dissolved into counties. The commission ultimately decided to treat counties and cities the same, while making preservation of towns, which fall entirely within counties, a lower priority.

Re-upping a contentious legal and political issue from earlier in the week, the commission again debated the extent to which race should factor into map-drawing decisions.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

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

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