Virginia unlikely to see major changes in redistricting

January 22, 2021 GMT

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — A relatively static population means Virginia’s legislative maps will be less affected by redistricting than any time since World War II, according to a leading member of the state’s new redistricting commission.

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, told commission members at their first meeting Thursday evening that preliminary data show northern Virginia in line for a modest increase, and communities on the North Carolina border losing some representation, but nothing like the upheaval from past decades, when northern Virginia was home to some of the fastest growing suburbs in the country.

The relative stability in population means that redrawing the legislative boundaries “will not be as difficult to do as in the past when there have been these radical shifts,” Barker said.

Barker is one of 16 members on the newly created Virginia Redistricting Commission. Voters established the commission in a referendum last fall. It takes the once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative boundaries for Congress and the state Legislature out of the General Assembly’s hands in hopes of reducing partisan gerrymandering.

In an interview Friday, another commission member, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said that while population shifts might not be significant, that won’t automatically translate to a simpler job for the commission. He said the commission is tasked with drawing fair lines under criteria very different from the partisan motivations that drove past redistricting.

“The old maps were drawn on old criteria,” he said.

The 16-member commission is comprised of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. It includes eight legislators and eight citizens nominated by legislators.

The commission faces a daunting task in drawing new lines, given the fact that Virginia is one of only two states that has state legislative races in 2021.

The lines can’t be redrawn until new census data is provided to ensure that the state’s population is evenly distributed among the districts.

In past decades, the Census Bureau has given Virginia and New Jersey, the other state with 2021 legislative races, an early release of population data so the new lines can be drawn in time.

This year, though, census data has been delayed by lawsuits, difficulties completing the count during the coronavirus pandemic and battles over whether the census should address citizenship issues. That has called into question whether the new lines can be drawn in time for primary elections in the summer and the general election in November.

A legislative attorney assigned to work with the redistricting commission told the committee it was “not likely” the commission could complete its work in time to meet deadlines for new districts in the 2021 election.

Barker, who played a key role in drawing the state Senate maps in 2010, provided some hope it could be done. He told the commission that a member of President Joe Biden’s transition team reached out to him. He said the Biden team is well aware of Virginia’s needs, and he urged the feds to provide Virginia its full data by mid-April to early May, if possible.

Simon, though, was pessimistic about meeting the timeline that would be required to allow elections this year under new boundaries. He said Barker “is the only person I’ve spoken with who is optimistic about getting the census data in time.”

Once the commission receives the needed census data, it is supposed to draw the new boundaries within 45 days.