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Northam signals last-minute involvement in redistricting row

February 28, 2020 GMT
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Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, Chairman of the House Privileges and Elections, committee listens to debate on the redistricting bill during the committee meeting at the Capitol Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, Chairman of the House Privileges and Elections, committee listens to debate on the redistricting bill during the committee meeting at the Capitol Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam may float an alternative redistricting plan as his fellow Democrats remain divided over how best to draw new congressional and legislative maps next year.

With only a week left to this year’s legislative session, the governor’s office announced Friday that he’s considering a range of options, including drafting new legislation or calling a special legislative session later this year.

“Given the increased possibility of deadlock, he is reviewing all options to ensure a new, transparent process is in place for the 2021 redistricting,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement.

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Virginia Democrats have been in a national spotlight on redistricting reform after taking full control of the statehouse this year. The party has made redistricting reform a key campaign plank but has been split on whether to support a proposed constitutional amendment that passed the GOP-led General Assembly last year with broad bipartisan support, or to back a different proposal that is friendlier to the new Democratic majority.

The party has not been well organized on the issue. Del. Joe Lindsey, the Democratic chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, said at a committee hearing Friday that the governor told him personally that he was going to present “alternative legislation” on Monday.

But Lindsey later said he was mistaken after reporters told him the governor’s office had not committed to proposing new legislation.

Redistricting has long been a hot-button issue in Virginia, where federal judges in recent years have struck down both the state legislative and congressional maps as racially discriminatory.

Several black lawmakers in the state House have objected to the proposed amendment on the grounds that it would dilute African Americans’ influence in drawing maps.

Del. Cia Price, a supporter of the alternative plan, welcomed Northam’s involvement, saying it gives more time for lawmakers to realize the flaws in proposed constitutional amendment.

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democrat who supports the amendment, said he didn’t know what the governor’s intent was, but said it was past time for a full floor vote on the amendment.

“It’s time to be on the board, and any attempts to try and prolong it are just attempts to kill it,” VanValkenburg said.

Both the amendment and the alternative plan would create a bipartisan commission of lawmakers and citizens who would present maps to the General Assembly for approval.

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But a key difference is who would have the final say in approving new maps should the commission’s work end in a stalemate. The amendment would give the last word to the conservative-leaning Virginia Supreme Court, while the alternative plan would still give the General Assembly that power.

The Senate has already passed the proposed amendment this year — with strong support from black senators. After punting on the issue for much of this year’s session, a House committee is expected to vote on the measure Monday.

The Senate has put off a final vote on the alternative plan. This year’s legislative session is set to end March 7.

U.S. House and state House and Senate districts will be redrawn based on the results of this year’s census, making the 2020 election particularly important. The winners could help control who holds power for the next decade, just as Republicans did after a tea party wave a decade ago.

Both parties have been accused of using partisan advantage to draw unfair maps around the country. More than a dozen states, both conservative and liberal, have passed some sort of redistricting procedures designed to keep partisanship in check.