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Redistricting commission may give up on updating state maps

October 11, 2021 GMT

Virginia’s bipartisan redistricting commission could give up on trying to redraw the state’s legislative districts after intense partisan bickering that showed few signs of letting up during a virtual meeting Monday.

Some members have suggested the commission will use its remaining time trying to broker an agreement on updating Virginia’s smaller number of congressional districts.

But it’s unclear if there’s any agreement even on that matter. No official action could be taken because members met virtually. Votes may be taken at the next in-person meeting, which is Thursday.

“If we are reaching a consensus of not pursuing the state maps -- and I think it needs to be a consensus --- (then) we need to just talk about it,” Republican citizen co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko said about Thursday’s upcoming meeting.

The commission missed Sunday’s deadline for turning in maps for Virginia’s 100 House districts and 40 Senate seats.

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State law gives the commission 14 days after “its initial failure to submit a plan to the General Assembly.” But some members, including Democratic citizen co-chair Greta Harris, have already suggested that the maps will be drawn by Virginia’s Supreme Court. It serves as a backstop if all else fails.

The commission’s last in-person meeting, which was Friday, imploded after Democrats and Republicans failed to agree on which proposed maps for the state House and Senate they should use as a starting point.

The meeting ended after Harris and other members left, preventing the commission from having a quorum. Others wanted to push on.

The commission is tasked with updating the state’s political districts based on new numbers from the U.S. census. It also must try to ensure that Black and minority voters are given a fair shot to elect candidates of their choice.

The 16-member commission is evenly split between Democratic and Republican appointees.

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, said the commission has been given an exceedingly difficult task. And it can only work so well given the structure of the process.

For instance, the commission was given too little time, Tobias said. Some members are state legislators who’ve seemed unable to shed their partisan positions. And then there’s the extremely complicated assignment of ensuring that maps comply with state and federal laws meant to protect minority voting rights.

“I’m just really torn about whether it was ever conceivable that the commissioners would be able to do what was a pretty tall order, it seems to me, for the first time Virginia has done anything like this,” Tobias said.

The commission’s partisan divide has so far proved insurmountable. Members spent a good chunk of Monday’s meeting arguing over whether Harris resigned when she left Friday’s meeting.

Before she left, she said she would “remove” herself from the commission “at this point.” Harris released a statement late Friday that said she didn’t quit. She reiterated her position at Monday’s meeting.

But Les Adams, a Republican House delegate and commission member, asked whether she had resigned and said there needed to be some legal discussion on the matter.

“Obviously, we have the individual power to resign,” Adams said. “But I don’t think it stands to reason we have the individual power to reassign ourselves.”

The meeting went on for another 45 minutes.