The Virginia Redistricting Commission hasn’t made a formal decision, but it seems to be moving on after missing a Sunday deadline to complete General Assembly maps. In a virtual meeting Monday, commissioners couldn’t take any votes, but they heard preliminary presentations from the partisan legal teams about redistricting Virginia’s congressional maps. When Co-Chair Mackenzie Babichenko (R) tried to wrap up the meeting with a summary of action items for a meeting later this week, Delegate Les Adams (R-Chatham) questioned Co-Chair Greta Harris (D) status on the commission, launching what Babichencko called an “airing of grievances” from frustrated commissioners.
On Friday, Harris and two other citizen members broke quorum, ending a fraught meeting. At the time, she said, “At this point I don’t feel as though all members on the commission are sincere in their willingness to compromise and to create fair maps for the Commonwealth of Virginia. And so at that point, if I can’t believe that the people I’m supposed to work with are true and sincere, regrettably, I am done. So thank you very much for the opportunity to serve, but I will remove myself from the commission at this point.”
Referencing that comment, Adams said Monday, “I just think it may be important to address the question of the status of the commission, the status of the membership, I suppose, you know, following the demonstrations from the last meeting. I saw the email from Amigo Wade indicating that Co-Chair Harris has not resigned, of course she’s on this meeting know, but the statement was that she was removing herself from the commission, not just from that meeting, and I just don’t know the answer to this, but I’m not aware of any reason that a verbal resignation is not effective in Virginia.”
Harris replied, “I think if Delegate Adams wants to go back and watch the live feed, my statement was, ‘I will remove myself from the commission at this point.’ That was referencing that particular meeting, not to resign from the commission. Those words did not cross my lips.”
Republican commissioners generally agreed that they wanted the legal teams to opine on whether Harris had actually resigned and if she was still legally part of the commission. But several Republicans indicated that they would not vote to remove Harris from the commission if the legal teams felt there was ambiguity.
Then, multiple commissioners reflected on the commission’s failures and on the emotional toll and cost to personal lives of commissioners and legislative staff. Commissioners said that Freedom of Information Act rules that limit how much the commissioners can interact offline kept them from developing any real rapport, leading to a lack of trust.
Babichenko said, “I did talk to some people over the weekend on both sides, and I will just say that it seemed as though there was just a fundamental lack of trust of each other’s motives, and each side was not on the offense, but on the defense, and suspicious of the other sides’ motives, and that’s kind of how we got here, and it was difficult to kind of recover.”
“Hopefully, we get it right on congressional districts, but regardless somebody will be able to learn about processes and directions after us for the next group to do it, because I promise you in ten years, I will not be on this commission,” Senator Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said. “There’s no way in hell. I will never accept an appointment again in the future.”
The commission is scheduled to meet in person on Thursday in a meeting that Harris is scheduled to chair. Commissioners will need to vote on whether or not to use an extension period to attempt to complete the General Assembly maps, will hear from the lawyers about Harris’ technical status on the commission, and will need to decide where to begin on congressional maps.
Both teams of lawyers said that districts three and four as they stand would be good starting points since they have racially polarized voting, which requires careful consideration to avoid disenfranchising minority voters. There’s room for more changes in districts five, six, and seven, although that will be significantly driven by population shifts.
The commission also needs to figure out how to keep the commission’s problematic bipartisan structure from derailing the congressional redistricting process. One suggestion is to force the partisan map drawers to work together to provide just one proposal to the commission instead of the competing proposals created for the state legislative maps. But while the partisan map-drawers and legal teams were able to come to consensus on some issues in the past, they have also failed to come to complete agreement, a chasm that repeatedly translates to the commission as a whole.
Still, Babichenko is holding out hope that the commission can create congressional maps, and offered advice to those who might draft future redistricting procedures.
“I think you can either take politics out, or put it in in a way that makes more sense, but it did not work this way,” Babichenko said. “But I still think maybe congressional maps, there’s still room to talk about it.”
If the commission does not complete maps, the Virginia Supreme Court will create the maps, an outcome which citizen member James Abrenio (D) said isn’t failure.
“I’ve already seen indication that we’re going to be sued. We’re going to be sued left and right. There’s going to be litigation over the next ten years,” Abrenio said. “And one of the things that everybody is missing is that the idea of the Supreme Court ending up being the ones drawing the maps is a legal, explicit outcome that was envisioned in this amendment. Having the maps be drawn by the Supreme Court is not a failure because we were unable to compromise as the amendment was intended.”
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