State lawmakers clash over legislative redistricting

Updated: Aug. 30, 2018 at 9:34 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - State lawmakers reconvened for a special session on redistricting Thursday, but they're no closer to a decision.

Republicans spent the day grilling Democrats about their proposal to change 29 House districts. Meanwhile, Democrats accused Republicans of delaying to avoid court ordered redistricting.

In June, a federal panel ruled that 11 districts in Richmond, Petersburg and Hampton Roads must be redrawn. The panel determined that lawmakers illegally packed African-American voters into some districts to make surrounding districts more Republican. Republicans are appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and had asked the federal court to extend an Oct. 30 deadline until the case is heard.

However, the Virginia federal court denied that motion at the end of the day Thursday, arguing voters need constitutional district lines for the 2019 House elections.

When the special session opened Thursday, delegates briefly debated the Democrats' proposal to redraw 29 House districts. Democrats say they provide fair representation, but Republicans complained they will likely flip five Republican seats to Democrats and that several Republican incumbents were drawn into the same districts.

"It paired four of our Republican incumbents into the same district," said House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R - Shenandoah). "This map kept a number of Democratic incumbents separated who lived less than a mile apart from each other."

House Minority Leader David Toscano (D - Charlottesville) said the criticism is a delay tactic, saying, "Until a court acts or grants an appeal or grants a stay, you are required to comply with the terms with an order of the court."

When the bill moved the House Privileges and Elections Committee, Toscano said he did not have information on Republican incumbents addresses in drawing the House districts.

NBC12 Political analyst and VCU Dean of Humanities and Sciences Dr. Deirdre Condit said the battle is not just over district lines, but over power in the House. Republicans currently have control by just one seat.

"Part  of the problem is the House is so closely divided. The stakes are really high for the parties going forward," Condit said. "There is going to be a jockeying of position to push the Oct. 30 deadline, even though the governor is trying to move it in the other direction."

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, issued a statement in response to Thursday's session that said, "It's easier to criticize than it is to construct, and the court offered the General Assembly the opportunity to remedy these unconstitutional, racially gerrymandered districts months ago. If Republicans are going to criticize the constitutional map offered by Democrats today, they should produce their own."

The Privileges and Elections Committee took no action on the Democrats' proposed district changes and lawmakers did not set a date for their return.

Meantime, the group OneVirginia2021 announced it has formed a bipartisan committee to propose a constitutional amendment to require that electoral lines be drawn by a non-partisan, independent commission rather than legislators.

The Committee includes Chairman Wyatt Durrette and Ken Cuccinelli, both former Gubernatorial candidates.

Said Durrette, "We all agree there has to be a better way or we would not be on this committee.  I didn't volunteer for this because I think the current system is a good one."

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