Virginia and Ohio bipartisan redistricting commissions fail to create fair maps
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The newly-created Virginia Redistricting Commission, approved by voters during the 2020 election, failed to approve final district maps after members walked out to prevent a quorum. Instead of the legislature drawing district boundaries, the commission shares power evenly between eight Republicans and eight Democrats. There is no tie-breaking mechanic. Further, the Republican members include a woman who insists Trump won the 2020 election and a man who made vulgar online comments about Trump opponents.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the commission has been mired in controversy from the start. The group has been unable to reconcile maps proposed by each party and argued over the consideration of race in redistricting:
The Democratic team sees race as a more central consideration, advising the commission it has a legal duty to seize every chance to draw districts favorable for minorities without straying too far from other rules requiring compact, cohesive districts. Instead of simply ensuring Black majorities in some districts, they say, the commission must work to create “opportunity districts” that racial minorities could effectively control by comprising 40 to 50 percent of the voting-age population therein…
The Republican team disagrees. They acknowledge drawing majority-Black districts is essential for Voting Rights Act compliance, but insist the commission isn’t obligated to go beyond that and draw as many opportunity districts as possible. Doing so, they argue, is a legally risky approach that overemphasizes race for political ends. “Opportunity for what? To elect more Democrats?” Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin said at a meeting Saturday.
Their failure to reach a compromise on the state maps has resulted in the conservative-leaning Virginia Supreme Court gaining control of the process. If the Democrat-controlled legislature had maintained their power to draw the redistricting maps, they’d likely be able to pick up a seat or two in the General Assembly. Now, with the state Supreme Court choosing the boundaries, it is possible they’ll lose a seat in a state that Biden won by 10 percentage points.
Like Virginia, Ohio voters also recently approved a constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan state legislative redistricting commission. But, unlike Virginia, Ohio did not require the Commission to be evenly split between both parties. The seven members include Governor Mike DeWine (R), State Auditor Keith Faber (R), Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R), Speaker of the House Robert Cupp (R), Senate President Matt Huffman (R), Senator Vernon Sykes (D), and House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D).
The Commission failed the gain bipartisan support for their state maps, passing the House and Senate redistricting plans along party lines. Consequently, the maps will only be valid for four years instead of the usual 10. Nevertheless, numerous legal challenges have been filed against the approved boundaries.
The new maps lock in a Republican supermajority in what should be a fairly purple state, favoring Republicans in 62 House districts and Democrats in 37. In the Senate, Republicans are favored in 23 districts and Democrats in 10. Over the past decade, Republican candidates garnered between 46.2% and 59.7% of statewide vote totals.
“No General Assembly district plan shall be drawn primarily to favor or disfavor a political party. In contrast, the maps adopted today go to absurd length to create a Republican monopoly on legislative power that they have not earned at the ballot box,” said Emilia Sykes.
A provision in the constitution says the redistricting commission must draw districts that split along party lines proportional to statewide election results over a 10-year span. In Ohio, that amounts to votes that have split about 54% Republican and 46% Democratic.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) refused to veto a new congressional map, despite agreeing with critics that the plan negatively impacts the state’s minority population. The Republican-drawn U.S. House map divides Pulaski County—the state’s most populous, containing Little Rock—between three districts, shifting Black and Hispanic residents out of the 2nd Congressional District and into the 1st and 4th Districts (pdf).
“While the percentage of minority populations for three of the four congressional districts do not differ that much from the current percentages, the removal of minority areas in Pulaski County into two different congressional districts does raise concerns,” Hutchinson said at a news conference.
The Republican governor, however, said he decided to not veto the new map out of deference to legislators and the political process. “This will enable those who wish to challenge the redistricting plan in court to do so,” he said.
All four of Arkansas’ US representatives are white Republican men. According to critics, the new maps cement this status quo:
“We have never elected an African-American to Congress,” Dianne Curry, Little Rock Chapter NAACP president, said. “With this being the way, it was presented they won’t even ever be a possibility because you won’t be able to have a minority-majority.”
Texas Hires Outside GOP Operative
Texas reportedly hired a Republican operative who played a key role in Wisconsin’s secretive and contested 2010 redistricting process to help draw their own state’s maps. Records show that Adam Foltz was hired in May by the Texas Legislative Council and is being paid a $120,000 salary. However, behind the scenes he is working for the House Redistricting Committee chaired by state Rep. Todd Hunter (R) of Corpus Christi.
Foltz’s involvement in Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting was shrouded in controversy. He was hired as a staff member for the Speaker of the Assembly to help redraw the state’s maps following the 2010 census. Though he was an aide to the speaker, Foltz and another staffer worked out of a law firm that was also brought on to help with the process.
He held meetings there under what a federal court called a “cloak of secrecy” with every Republican member of the State Assembly — but no Democrats — who were each required to sign confidentiality agreements that bound them from discussing what was said. Despite Republican efforts to keep them secret, documents released during the litigation over the maps Foltz helped draw showed that he was also asked to help witnesses prepare their public testimony in support of them.
A federal court that considered the state’s maps eventually found violations of the Voting Rights Act in two assembly districts where map drawers improperly diluted the vote of Latinos. In that ruling, the court said the drafting of the maps was “needlessly secret, regrettably excluding input from the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin citizens.”
Following public outcry of obvious racial gerrymanders, the Texas House made last minute changes to the Senate-approved map on Saturday. Instead of forcing two black Democrats—Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Al Green—into the same district, the House redrew boundaries that potentially allow both to keep their seats. The chamber also restored a Hispanic-majority district in Central Texas that the Senate had shrunk.
However, early Sunday morning, the Senate rejected those changes and requested a conference to reach a compromise. A final vote is due by the end of the special session on Tuesday.
West Virginia is experiencing its own gerrymandering crisis, focused not on the federal district boundaries but on its state office plans. At the last minute, after obtaining bipartisan support for a state senate map, the Republican-controlled legislature abruptly amended the bill with entirely new boundaries that disadvantage Democrats (pdf).
The most recent map cuts across county boundaries and divides urban areas multiple times, lumping sections of the most populous cities with more rural conservative outskirts.
[T]he last-minute state Senate map was so partisan that Ken Martis, professor emeritus of geography at West Virginia University, and a national expert on gerrymandering, said Thursday, “I don’t know how they could honestly go to sleep and do this. I honestly mean that.”
The state House redistricting map also divides urban areas and combines existing districts, pitting Democratic incumbents against each other (pdf). For instance, current 5th District Del. Dave Pethel (D) would be forced into a primary with 4th District Del. Lisa Zukoff (D) under the Republican-approved proposal.
In an emotional floor speech, Pethel said he would rather retire and support Zukoff for the new seat. Pethel has served in the House of Delegates representing Wetzel County and the western portion of Monongalia County for 30 years.
“I prayed about it and asked the Lord to give me a clear sign as to what I should do,” Pethel said. “When I saw the first draft map that put Wetzel into four districts and (Zukoff), who I have great respect for, and I in the same district, I knew that was my sign to retire and I will not seek re-election in 2022. I made a pledge to her that I will do everything to support her and see that she wins the Democratic primary and the general election next year.”