October 5, 2018

“Politically Neutral and Race-Blind”? Virginia Republicans and Democrats Can’t Agree On Redistricting

By Mark Gunnery

Virginia State Capitol

Virginia State Capitol

Lawmakers in Virginia are working to create a redistricting plan in response to a June federal court ruling that 11 House of Delegates districts in Hampton Roads and greater Richmond were racially gerrymandered and thus unconstitutional. On Tuesday, Governor Ralph Northam said that he would veto a redistricting map that House Republicans hope to pass, which they call “politically neutral” and “race-blind.” Governor Northam says that he believes “this partisan process should not continue and that the federal court is best positioned to construct a remedial districting plan.”

Quentin KiddProfessor of Political Science at Christopher Newport University, explains the background of the racial gerrymandering and redistricting debate in Virginia, and where lawmakers are going from here.

Why did a panel of judges in June rule that Virginia needed to redraw its House of Delegates map? What did they say was wrong with the previous one?

Quentin Kidd: The lawsuit alleged that in 2011 the Virginia General Assembly redrew lines after the 2010 census, and packed more African American voters into these 11 districts than was required by the Voting Rights Act. These 11 districts are majority minority districts, so they are required to have enough African American voters so that African American voters can pick the candidate of their choice. What the lawsuit alleged was that rather than putting those districts at 50% African American voters, the Republican-controlled General Assembly put as many as 63% African American voters into those districts. By consequence of doing that, surrounding districts were made more safe for Republicans. The suit alleged that this was racial gerrymandering, and  the three judge panel ordered new maps to be drawn. In other words, they should shift the percentage of African American voters in those districts back down to what the court would consider a reasonable number.

Gov. Northam criticized the process that Republicans used to create their map. Why? And what kind of process would he prefer?

Quentin Kidd: I don’t want to put words in Governor Northam’s mouth, but I think what he would say is that this is sort of a bait and switch. You’re claiming to be race-blind but really what you’re doing is using voting political voting behavior as a proxy for race. What he’s saying is we should go ahead and let the court do it, let a special master that the court appoints do it, because the special master will draw maps in ways that are legitimately neutral of or devoid of partisanship and will comply with all the rules of the voting rights act.

Virginia lawmakers have until October 30 to create a map with new districts. What happens if they don’t meet that deadline–especially considering the upcoming November election?

Quentin Kidd: If they don’t meet that deadline the courts have said that they will appoint a special master—an independent entity—to do it. The courts asked both sides to recommend special masters a couple weeks ago and both sides recommended some people that they would be willing to accept. And so right now the Republicans and the Democrats in the General Assembly are haggling over the map that both sides have drawn. I can’t imagine, at this point, either side being able to compromise enough so that both sides can be happy with any map that can be produced by October 30th.

Maryland is dealing with its own partisan gerrymandering case right now. This week a panel of federal judges raised the idea of having an independent, nonpartisan commission change the House of Representative lines in the 6th District in Western Maryland, which were drawn to benefit Democrats. It’s a case the Supreme Court refused to hear in June. How are racial and partisan gerrymandering considered different legally?

Quentin Kidd: There are a lot of court cases and precedent that essentially say that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional. But the courts have long said that redistricting is a political process, it’s done by bodies of elected officials, so there’s going to be a certain amount of partisanship as part of that, and the courts have said that’s ok. The courts have distinguished between something that’s illegal, racial discrimination, versus something that isn’t illegal, partisanship.