In 2011, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a redistricting plan designed to disadvantage Democrats by concentrating substantial numbers of African-American voters into fewer districts, thereby diluting their strength in other surrounding districts. After years of court arguments generated by a lawsuit brought by citizens in the most affected eleven districts, that plan has now been ruled unconstitutional and, in an opinion issued June 26, 2018, the court directed the General Assembly to redraw the districts. Since that date, the Republican majority has been unwilling to engage with Democrats in developing a plan to address the Constitutional problem. In mid-July and again in August, I wrote to the Speaker of the House to request that we act to create a new plan. In August, the court asked the Republican Majority to indicate their intention about drawing a new plan. The majority response has been both to ignore my letters and to provide no commitment to the court about any intention to produce a plan. Consequently, Gov. Northam called the General Assembly into a Special Session on August 30, 2018, and the House Democratic Caucus produced and introduced a plan of its own designed to address the Constitutional infirmities of the 2011 bill. As of this date, the Republicans have not introduced a plan of their own to remedy these problems.
We reconvened on Thursday August 30, 2018, and immediately encountered more and more efforts by the Republicans to delay, delay, and delay. The majority party did not introduce a plan of its own, but spent several hours in a Privileges and Elections (P&E) Committee hearing criticizing the Democratic plan without even explicitly indicating why it would not be Constitutional. At the same time, the Republicans adjourned both the entire House and the P&E Committee without setting a definite time to return to Richmond to work on the Democratic plan, any plans that independent groups have produced, or any plan that the Republicans might introduce. They defeated two motions that would set public hearings on the Democratic plan as well as a definite date by which we would return. You can view my speech on this here.
There is no way to describe this, except to call it what it is – a legislative impasse.
Coincidentally or not, within 30 minutes of the adjournment of the P&E Committee on Thursday, the district court denied the Republicans’ request for a stay of its June 26 court order. This means that the court will force a redistricting in the near future.
House Democrats Take Our Job Seriously
The Democratic Caucus takes its obligation to govern very seriously. We also take court orders very seriously. When a court decides that a legislative action is unconstitutional and gives us a timeline within which to act, we need to act. House Republicans have known since June 26 about the need to reform these districts and they have done nothing, except delay. That is why the Democrats introduced a map.
No redistricting map is perfect, and the Republicans claim that the Democratic map is “overly partisan.” This ignores an unavoidable fact: when you move precincts around from districts that have been highly Democratic in the past, some of those voters inevitably end up in nearby, and probably more Republican, districts. As a result, those districts will become less Republican and more Democratic, no matter who draws the new districts to unpack African-American voters. In the Democratic plan to address the 11 districts that were ruled unconstitutional, it was necessary to move voters into adjacent districts to satisfy the constitutional requirement. A total of 29 districts were affected by the Democratic plan. We drew our plan attempting to ensure that the population in each of these districts were within plus or minus 1 percent of each other, to match the population standard that applies to all the unaffected House districts. We reduced the number of split precincts in these districts, and tried to construct the districts to respect (and in some instances, reunite) “communities of interest” as required under the Constitution. We were not permitted to, and did not, draw district lines using race as the predominant factor, again a Constitutional requirement.
Affected Voters Deserve Action From Their Legislators
The Democratic map is a remedial one; it is designed only to correct the Constitutional infirmities until the next statewide redistricting to be done in 2021. In the upcoming statewide redistricting, not only will the legislature utilize updated information from the 2020 Census, but other substantial analyses will need to be performed on each of the districts, one-by-one, to comply with Constitutional requirements and provisions of the Voting Rights Act. This was one of the criticisms of the 2011 Republican map, as they simply used an artificial percentage to apply to racial voting population in each district.
Given statements by leadership of the majority party that the Democratic plan could not be approved, and since no other plans have been introduced for legislative consideration, we have reached an impasse. If the court concludes this as well, it is likely to intervene and redraw the lines to prepare for the 2019 election. It is difficult to determine when and if this will be done. In the meantime, voters in these 11 districts and all of the adjacent ones are left wondering who they might have a chance to vote for in 2019. This Constitutional problem needs to be addressed quickly.
Redistricting Reform Must Happen Before 2021
In the long term, there is little doubt that redistricting has to be done a very different way. I have supported numerous proposals for nonpartisan redistricting commissions for over 10 years and will continue to do so in the upcoming session. Since 2002, Democrats have introduced almost 90 bills that would have created these commissions or enacted other redistricting reform to fight partisan gerrymandering. The House failed to pass any of them. Since the composition of the House has changed dramatically, it is possible that we may be able to pass a major change in redistricting policy in the next session. That will be our last chance before the 2021 required redistricting, and I hope that we will take every opportunity to pass such change.
Visits in Charlottesville
We are a “citizen legislature.” That means members of the General Assembly spend most of the year in our home districts. Except for days when we are called into special session, I am usually in Charlottesville and available to meet with you through the end of 2018. Please call my Charlottesville office at (434) 220-1660 to schedule an appointment.