Virginia’s new redistricting commission will scrap the state’s current political maps and redraw boundaries for the state’s congressional and legislative districts from scratch.
The commission voted 12-4 during a meeting Monday to start its work with a clean slate. The decision was widely praised by anti-gerrymandering advocates and citizens who attended the meeting, who say the old maps were a product of partisan gerrymandering and could unduly protect incumbents.
The amicable vote marked a departure from some of the partisan tension that continues to underpin the commission’s work. On Monday, the commission also finalized plans to hire map-drawers aligned with both major parties to help with the technical aspects of crafting the state’s political maps.
Republicans selected John Morgan, who worked with legislative Republicans to draw the House of Delegates map in 2011. That map was eventually struck down by the courts for racial gerrymandering. Democrats will work with Ken Strasma, the CEO of analytics firm HaystaqDNA, which promotes itself as the pioneer of “the predictive analytics that helped the Obama campaign make history in 2008.”
The 16-member commission, made up of eight people from each party, will begin its map-drawing work in earnest on Thursday, when analysts hired by the state will publish population estimates that include the redistribution of the state’s prison population to the localities they came from.
The redistribution stems from legislation approved by lawmakers last year and marks a significant policy change for Virginia. Only 10 other states redistribute their inmate population for redistricting purposes.
The commission is the product of a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by Virginia voters in a statewide referendum last fall. The amendment shifted some power over the process away from the legislature and toward the bipartisan commission, which is made up of eight lawmakers and eight citizens.
The commission in recent weeks has struggled to find common ground on a number of issues, at times pitting its Democratic-allied and Republican-allied members against one another.
Aside from separate map-drawers, the commission also has two legal counsels — one allied with Democrats and one with Republicans.
Monday’s vote on starting from new maps was a departure from that dynamic.
Sens. George Barker, D-Fairfax, and Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, said starting from the old maps could help the commission gain needed support for the maps from the General Assembly, which will have to approve the maps for them to be enacted.
James Abrenio of Fairfax, one of the Democrats’ citizen members who voted in favor of scrapping the old maps, argued that “the best way to land the plane” is to draw maps that are fair and have public support, putting political pressure on the legislature.
A vote to utilize the current maps while developing new maps from a clean slate, proposed by Barker and Newman, failed 9-7.
The members who voted in favor of that approach were Jose A. Feliciano of Fredericksburg, Virginia Thornton of Forest and Richard Harrell of South Boston — three of the four Republican-allied citizen members — along with Barker, Newman and Dels. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, and Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania.
A subsequent vote to scrap the old maps was opposed only by Barker, Thornton, Adams and Newman.
Groups and citizens against gerrymandering said they backed the creation of the commission to bring a new approach to the process.
“Starting with the old maps is problematic because they were acknowledged to be gerrymandered,” said Liz White, the executive director of the redistricting advocacy group OneVirginia2021, speaking of two court decisions in the past decade that struck down both the congressional and House of Delegates maps drawn by Virginia Republicans.
“They’ve been fixed, but that was a Band-Aid solution by special masters outside of Virginia,” she added. “The commission’s vote really exceeded all our expectations today.”
Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, said the approach could slightly benefit Democrats over the alternative.
“Both the [House of Delegates] and congressional maps are partial Republican gerrymanders — both were altered in part by courts, but a lot of the districts stayed the same,” Kondik said.
“If your starting point is a Republican gerrymandering, that would skew the process toward Republicans. If you say, hey, let’s start from scratch, that might benefit Democrats.”
Kondik added that starting from scratch could also make districts more compact. He pointed to the seat of Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, in particular. Spanberger has won twice by running up margins in the parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties that are in the district, while losing its eight rural counties: Amelia, Culpeper, Goochland, Louisa, Nottoway, Orange, Powhatan and Spotsylvania.
“If you make it more compact and focused on Richmond, that could be helpful to Spanberger but maybe cause problems for [Rep. Don] McEachin,” a neighboring Democrat who represents the 4th District, Kondik said.
Under the current congressional map, Spanberger represents western Henrico and western Chesterfield. McEachin represents the eastern portions of the counties, as well as 14 other localities.