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Redistricting commission moves to congressional maps, plans formal vote to drop work on legislative maps

Redistricting commission moves to congressional maps, plans formal vote to drop work on legislative maps

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Members listen to comments from an interested party online during a meeting of the redistricting commission inside the Pocahontas Building in Richmond on Sept. 20.

The Virginia Redistricting Commission on Monday had preliminary discussions about how to draw the state’s congressional districts, setting aside its contentious work on the state’s legislative districts.

Monday’s meeting — coming on the day of the commission’s deadline to approve maps for the state Senate and House of Delegates — followed a chaotic gathering on Friday, when party-line votes left the panel at an impasse. That meeting ended abruptly when three Democratic commissioners left the room.

The panel had been at odds for weeks on how to resolve partisan differences that had left the public with Republican and Democratic versions of the maps for the House and Senate. It was never clear how those maps would come together to form one map for each chamber.

Despite statements from some commissioners on Friday that the panel could find a resolution, its co-chairs issued an update on Sunday afternoon saying the commission wouldn’t take up the legislative maps at their next meeting, and would instead consider the congressional map, which is due to the legislature for its consideration in less than two weeks.

On Monday, Republican co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko said she did not believe the commission would make more progress on the legislative maps, but clarified that at least some members don’t feel that way. Early in the meeting, Babichenko asked what action the commission would need to take to send a message to the Virginia Supreme Court and the public that it would no longer work on the House and Senate maps.

Under state law, the commission could take advantage of a 14-day extension to finish its work on the legislative maps.

Kareem Crayton, an attorney aligned with the Democrats, said the commission could take a vote affirming its decision to let the state Supreme Court draw the legislative maps, or could simply issue a statement to that effect through Babichenko and Greta Harris, the Democratic co-chair. The Republican attorney, Chris Bartolomucci, said the commission is automatically granted the extension, and that it should simply allow the second deadline to expire.

Because the commission met virtually Monday, it could not take any votes or formal action. Babichenko said commissioners could take up the question at their next meeting on Thursday, which will be held in person in Richmond.

The commission on Thursday will also consider how to start work on redrawing the state’s 11 congressional districts. On Monday, attorneys offered a preliminary look at that process. Democrats emphasized that the 3rd and 4th congressional districts, which were determined by the courts, should be considered with particular care due to civil rights protections for minority voters.

Democrats picked up a congressional seat in the 4th District — now represented by Rep. Don McEachin — after a three-judge panel redrew the state’s U.S. House boundaries and imposed a new map in early 2016. The judges had found that legislators packed too many African Americans into the 3rd District, currently represented by Rep. Bobby Scott, diluting minority voters’ influence in surrounding districts.

The most contentious topic of Monday’s meeting was a debate over whether Harris, the Democratic co-chair, had verbally resigned from the commission when she left abruptly on Friday. Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania, asked that the commission’s attorneys draft an opinion about whether her statements on Friday amounted to a resignation.

“I’m not aware of any reason that a verbal resignation is not effective in Virginia,” he said. “I think we need to have some sort of legal discussion about that and see where we are. Prior to moving forward with any votes.”

Harris on Friday had said: “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.”

On Monday, Harris clarified that she meant she was removing herself from the meeting at that moment, not from the commission. In an email to the Richmond Times-Dispatch and to legislative aides Friday, Harris confirmed she had not resigned.

Some Democrats on the commission accused Adams of partisanship in suggesting that Harris, the Democratic co-chair, had imperiled her seat on the commission.

“Much of the discussion up to this point was about, how we go forward. And I thought that we had reached a point where we felt that we could indeed do that,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton. “And then we get this comment that does appear to stir the pot and disrupt the commission’s work.”

Babichenko directed the attorneys to issue an opinion on the matter by Monday afternoon.

In memos to the commission, GOP and Democratic attorneys agreed that Harris had not verbally resigned, citing various legal standards.

“Because Co-Chair Harris’ statement and actions on October 8 were ambiguous, and because she promptly clarified that she did not resign, it is our legal opinion that she did not resign from the Commission,” wrote the GOP attorneys, Bartolomucci and Bryan Tyson.

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