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Voters Sue Virginia Over Election Districting

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - The Virginia Board of Elections is under fire for alleged racial gerrymandering during a 2011 voter redistricting plan for the House of Delegates.

In a lawsuit filed in the Richmond, Va. Federal Court, a dozen voters say the committee violated electoral rights by packing black voters into fragmented and irregularly shaped district lines -- targeting a 55 percent threshold and significantly decreasing compactness in these areas.

"As a result, African-American voters were illegally packed into the Challenged Districts, thereby diminishing their influence in the surrounding districts," the complaint says. "The General Assembly adopted the 55% racial threshold without justification, including any determination that the threshold was reasonably necessary to avoid retrogression in each of the Challenged Districts or otherwise comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

The plan, which was approved by former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell on April 29, 2011, divided Virginia into 100 House of Delegates districts, 12 of which are challenged in the Dec. 22 complaint.

The state board's redistricting plan allegedly boosts black voting-age constituents in these challenged districts by up to 9 percent, say voters.

Many districts have reelected delegates for years and of all the challenged districts, only two new officials won positions, both by special election.

According to the complaint, "Several delegates who represent districts with significant majority African-American populations were specifically told by Republican members of the House of Delegates or their staffers that the delegates representing those districts could draw their districts any way they wished, so long as the African-American voting age population met or exceeded the 55% threshold."

Voters allege that "bizarrely shaped" districts with no regard for political subdivision or geography are further indicative of racial gerrymandering. Several districts cross the Elizabeth river in one or more places to encompass more black-populated areas, while District 95 extends a thin strip between two white-majority districts. Because of this, some districts suffered up to a 59 percent decrease in compactness after redistricting.

But voters say the board had no reason for the arbitrary 55 percent threshold in districts where black delegates had been elected for years -- even in districts with less than 55 percent black voters. And with no evidence that the threshold would uphold voters' rights, plaintiffs allege the redistribution could only have been racially-motivated.

"No other conclusion is possible based on the General Assembly's strict adherence to the 55% racial threshold in every single one of the State's twelve majority-minority districts, applied without analysis or justification, and its simultaneous failure in many of the same districts to comply with traditional districting principles of compactness and respect for political subdivisions and geographical boundaries," the complaint says.

The plaintiffs ask the court to declare the new districting regime unconstitutional, to enjoin defendant Virginia Board of Election from enforcing the new districts, and to order that a new districting process get under way.

They are represented by John Roche of Perkins Coie LLP in Washington, D.C.

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