Redistricting Commission ‘more focused on political outcome’ by Phillip E. Thompson

8/19/2021, 6 p.m.
We are not surprised by the partisanship that seems to be weighing down the efforts of the new Virginia Redis- ...

We are not surprised by the partisanship that seems to be weighing down the efforts of the new Virginia Redis- tricting Commission to redraw the state’s legislative and Congressional districts.

What did we expect?

While proponents driving the creation of the commission touted it as a way to keep politics out of the redistricting process, the very nature of its composition mires the commission in politics. It has 16 members (there is no way to break a tie), including eight legislators—four Democrats and four Republicans—and eight citizen members who were recommended by Democratic and Republic legislative leaders and then selected by a committee of five retired circuit court judges (who owed their selection and service as judges to a Democratic or Republican majority of the legislature).

Out of the starting gate this week, the commission couldn’t agree on an independent organization or company to make a first attempt at redrawing new legislative maps based on the new census data for the state. The result? The Republicans and the Democrats will each draw their own maps and then try to mesh the two.

What a headache and waste of time. How is this fair? This is exactly how the maps were drawn in the past— by legislators in the General Assembly, with the political party in the majority—that would be the Republicans for the last 20 years—winning in the end and retaining power to draw favorable boundaries for the House of Delegates and state Senate seats to help them maintain their grip on government.

We can see now where redistricting is headed—to the courts.

Under the law, which was approved by voters in a referendum last November, if the commission is stymied and doesn’t come up with a map, the Virginia Supreme Court will get involved and draw the maps. Remember, the majority of the high court’s members were selected by Republican lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the commission has until Oct. 10 to submit redistricting plans to the General Assembly, which can approve or reject the maps, but not change them.

Why is redistricting important for Black people and people of color?

How the lines are drawn will determine what district you live in and, ultimately, the strength of your voting power. For example, if Richmond’s Black community is split among, say five different districts and lumped in with parts of Chesterfield and/or Henrico, that may keep Black voters from being a major constituency in any one district and block them from electing a legislator or member of Congress who could best represent their interests.

Such map drawing of this type in the past has been responsible, in part, for a lack of Black representatives in state government and in Congress. As a result of court battles and other challenges to unfairly drawn redistricting maps, Virginia voters have been able to elect two African-Americans to the U.S. House of Representatives, while the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus now has a record 23 members in the General Assembly.

It is clear that how Virginians are counted for purposes of redistricting is critical to retaining power. Already, state and local officials from conservative Southwest Virginia have filed a lawsuit challenging the new redistricting rule requiring inmates to be counted where they last lived, and not where they are incarcerated.

This practice of counting inmates in the census tracts where they are incarcerated rather than where they lived has helped dilute the political power of those home communities. While inmates with felony convictions are not allowed to vote, they—and their families—still have an interest in the communities where they are from.

Most of Virginia’s prisons are located in rural, white areas. Counting inmates—many of whom are Black or people of color and primarily from urban areas—as residents of those rural communities falsely transfers political power from urban and diverse cities to those rural, white communities whose political interests often are diametrically opposed to those of the inmates and their families.

According to an analysis of the 2010 Census data by the Prison Policy Initiative for the League of Women Voters of Virginia, 18 Virginia counties and one city were using the prison population in their redistricting efforts. In six of those counties, the prison population accounted for 30 percent or more of that county’s population. In fact, inmates in Lunenburg County made up 67 percent of that county’s population, while they made up 51 percent of the population of Southampton County, and 45 percent of Buckingham County’s population.

In several Southwest Virginia counties—Bland, Buchanan, Pulaski, Scott, Tazewell and Wise—inmates made up between 10 percent and 36 percent of the populations.

Likewise, in conservative Goochland County, the prison population accounted for 30 percent of the county’s popula- tion in the 2010 Census, according to the figures.

For decades, this practice of using inmates of color to enhance the political power of rural, predominantly white communities has allowed conservative policies to dominate Virginia’s politics and legislature. And now that this inequity is being erased from the books, conservative politicians are rallying to keep Virginia in the past as the Old Dominion.

We hope justice will prevail and this lawsuit will result in a permanent end to this prison-based gerrymandering. We also urge the Virginia Democratic Party to step up and demand that their members who sit on the redistricting commission not give in to conservative forces that would try to steer the redistricting process.

Voters want fairness. When we go to the polls, we want to make sure our vote counts. We hope voters of color across the state will keep an eye on this latest redistricting process and make their views known to the commission and to their state legislators.