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Opinion/Editorial: Hope fades for a fair redistricting process

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The hope and optimism, the hard work and consensus-building all appear to have been for naught: Virginia still can’t seem to escape the cynical, self-serving partisanship that dominates its redistricting process.

This looming failure also illustrates how deeply, dangerously entrenched are the political divides in our commonwealth.

At a key meeting this week, the new Virginia Redistricting Commission couldn’t agree on the all-important task of appointing neutral experts to help it draw the voting maps that will govern upcoming elections. (Races already underway won’t be affected.)

The 16-person commission — eight Democratic lawmakers and citizens selected by Democrats, eight Republican lawmakers and the Republicans’ chosen citizen members — couldn’t even agree on who should serve on subcommittees designed to help them deal with their workload.

These schisms were foreshadowed when the commission decided that each political side should have its own legal counsel.

Democratic commissioners, reflecting advice from counsel, supported hiring the University of Richmond’s Spatial Analysis Lab to evaluate the population statistics and other criteria that shape voting districts. The Republicans’ counsel didn’t recommend an alternative, saying rather that each party should choose its own map-drawer and reconcile the two versions later on.

Some Republican commissioners said the UR lab had never before done redistricting work and could not be entrusted with this important task.

“When I’m seeking medical expertise, I go to a medical expert,” Virginia Trost-Thornton said. “If I’m on the House [of Delegates] committee, I would be seeking House members’ expertise in trying to draw their lines.”

Which is a Catch-22. It’s precisely because voters don’t trust the legislature to draw neutral maps that we now have a redistricting commission, removing that power from the General Assembly and giving it to a commission that was to have been independent of partisan influences — or so we had hoped. Of course no other state entities have experience in redistricting; the ability to gain such experience was denied them.

For too long, lawmakers had manipulated districts either to benefit themselves and their party or to disadvantage their opponents and the opposing party. This was practiced by both Democrats and Republicans. It became particularly effective when data collection grew to be so precise that mapmakers could pinpoint individual homes and residents, placing them in whatever district best suited the politicians’ purposes.

This process eventually created a citizen backlash. Redistricting reform consolidated under the guidance of OneVirginia21, which was spearheaded by Charlottesville’s Leigh B. Middleditch Jr. in 2013.

Originally envisioned as a nonpartisan entity, the redistricting commission eventually evolved into a bipartisan one.

Reform would have to be approved by the voters as a state constitutional amendment, but before that could happen the General Assembly had to agree upon the wording of the proposal — not just once but twice, in two successive legislative sessions.

But lawmakers would not agree to fully relinquish partisan input into redistricting and insisted on a commission equally representing both major parties, instead of the nonpartisan group originally envisioned. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable compromise for the reformers to accept, since the alternative was to lose any possible opportunity to affect redistricting for another 10 years, when the 2030 Census necessitated the next redrawing of boundaries. Meanwhile, the Assembly still gets to vote the districts up or down — it just can’t make its own changes to them.

Virginia voters approved the constitutional amendment overwhelmingly.

This clear message from the voters now risks being ignored by the very people who are supposed to implement it.

We hope we’re wrong. For the sake of Virginia’s future, we hope we’re wrong. But we can no longer be optimistic.

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A new redistricting commission made up of citizens and legislators was meant to end decades of partisan gerrymandering and produce fair maps for Virginia's political districts. Early in the process, partisan tensions are already dividing the commission and threatening to derail its work amid a fast-approaching deadline.

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