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Mixed reaction to new Virginia districts drawn by court-appointed mapmakers

While there were no complaints of partisan gerrymandering, the first drafts of Virginia's new election maps were met with concern over the boundary lines splitting some communities apart.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia legislators and voting rights advocates spent Thursday morning reacting with a mix of praise and concern to draft redistricting maps released overnight by the state’s highest court.  

New maps for the state’s House of Delegates, state Senate and congressional districts were drawn by special masters appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court after a recently created, and constitutionally mandated, bipartisan committee failed to produce maps on their own. 

Though fears of a Republican gerrymander from the mostly GOP-appointed court proliferated state political discourse ahead of the release of the draft maps, the complaints that followed have been noticeably milder.

“I’ve been pleased to see the court operate in the way we hoped they would,” said Liz White, executive director for One Virginia 2021, a nonprofit group that helped get the state’s new map-drawing process approved by voters in 2020. The fight was particularly relevant in Virginia, where claims of racial gerrymandering were affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court and Voting Rights Act-compliant maps weren't used until 2019.

“I don’t know if everyone complaining about it means it's good, but I do think it's impossible to draw a map that everyone is happy with,” White said of online critics who dove into the data overnight. 

The constitutional amendment One Virginia 2021 successfully pushed for calls for cooperation between legislators and citizens to make new maps as part of the decennial census, but the redistricting commission could not reach agreement amid partisan sparring.

That opened the door for the backup plan baked into the amendment: the state high court’s involvement. 

“We carefully drew districts that met constitutional and statutory population requirements,” the court-appointed special masters, University of California political science professor Bernard Grofman and RealClearPolitics analyst Sean Trende, wrote in a memo released alongside the new maps. “In doing so, we minimized county and city splits, while respecting natural boundaries and communities of interest to the extent possible.”

But not everyone was happy with the special masters' work, with some legislators expressing initial complaints about communities being split apart by the new lines.

Delegate Marcus Simon, a Democratic member of the failed redistricting commission, pointed to portions of Roanoke in the western part of the state that would be split four ways if the current maps hold. Another boundary, he said, would cleave communities in Loudoun County in half. 

“In that neighborhood [the line is] basically Main Street,” he said of the demarcation used in the Washington, D.C., exurb. “They split the area right down the middle.”

Another sticking point for Simon is the impact the maps would have on incumbents. 

While he admitted the system was in no way intended to be an “incumbent protection racket,” he said 21 out of 48 members of the House Democratic Caucus are now living in districts where they’d have to compete against other Democrats. 

“I don’t think it's anybody's intention to put that many members of the legislature in a situation where they have to move or retire,” he said in an interview.

But it's not just Democratic incumbents impacted. Among those who could face such a choice is Republican Delegate David LaRock. Under the draft maps, the incumbent’s home along the I-95 corridor would put him in a competing district with fellow Republican Delegate Michael Webert.

While LaRock said he needed more time to review the draft maps as a whole, he seemed unruffled by the prospect of working with Webert to meet the needs of his constituents. 

“It’s not out of the question,” LaRock said in a phone interview about the possibility of either candidate moving to keep them in their respective seats. 

As for the partisan nature of the maps, long a complaint about the redistricting process nationwide, the special masters said politics were not even discussed until after the initial drafts of the maps.

According to third-party analysis from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, the maps do favor Democrats, but not in an egregious way. The data trackers gave both the congressional and House of Delegates an “A” rating for partisan fairness while the state Senate lines earned a “B.” 

“Our rough goal was to see if the median district in a congressional map approximated Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s statewide vote shares for 2020, and if it approximated the Democrats’ statewide results for 2017 for state legislative districts,” the mapmakers said of how politics were factored in as the process winded down. 

But Simon wondered if the years used as a baseline were “a high watermark” for Democrats. Both races were impacted by Trump, a deeply unpopular candidate who lost the state by 10 points in 2020. The Senate map, meanwhile, used the 2017 attorney general’s race, which was won by incumbent Democrat Mark Herring thanks to an anti-Trump Blue Wave.

“How often do you have an unpopular president paired with a popular incumbent?” Simon asked. 

But LaRock questioned if any voter data would be as beneficial as Simon and others think.

“You can speculate as to how someone voted, and you can know the general outcome, but you don’t know how individuals voted,” he said.

Virginia’s 2021 elections, which saw the Republicans sweep every statewide seat for the first time in nearly a decade, speak to that idea. 

“There might be some value, but I’m cautious about ever anticipating the outcome of a future election,” he added. 

Impacts on House of Delegate seats were far from the only ramifications of Wednesday night’s release.

New congressional maps put the state’s 7th District further north, sweeping incumbent Democrat Abigail Spanberger entirely out of her prospective district. Fellow incumbent Democrats Elaine Luria, along the state’s southeastern coast, and Jennifer Wexton, outside of the nation's capital, would also see dramatic shifts in their constituencies. 

“The easiest way to understand the new Virginia congressional district map is that the winners are the 8 male incumbents and the losers are the 3 female incumbents,” tweeted Aaron Fritschner, a member of Virginia Democratic Congressman Don Beyer’s staff. 

The mapmaking process isn’t done yet. Wednesday’s maps were the first drafts, and two public comment periods are scheduled for next week, Dec. 15 and 17. 

Democrat Delegate Cia Price, who helped craft the criteria the special masters used, offered no comment on the drafted maps but stressed the need for citizens to utilize this feedback opportunity while they can. 

“The public’s input is what’s most important now,” she said in a text message. 

Following public comment, the special masters will make amendments as they see fit. After that, however, there’s little anyone - elected or otherwise - can do unless a challenge is filed in court. 

“The court will let the state’s Department of Legislative Services know these are the final maps and to adjust the code of Virginia accordingly,” Simon said. 

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