Democratic state senators furious with surprise redistricting ploy
Republicans take advantage of holiday absence, push through controversial measure
Virginia Senate Republicans pushed through a controversial redistricting measure Monday during the presidential inauguration, which would create a district in the Richmond area of primarily African American voters. The change will be implemented in 2015.
This redistricting moves Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds’ district, including the University, to a Richmond area that leans conservative, likely posing a reelection threat for Deeds.
The move sparked outrage from state Democrats, because Sen. Henry Marsh (D-16), a Civil Rights leader, was attending the Inaugural proceedings in Washington, D.C. The Senate holds a 20-20 gridlock, but Marsh’s absence allowed for a Republican majority.
“There have been no hearings on this plan,” said Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, in a statement. “To do this by surprise, to rush it through in a day … this is sneaking, underhanded, and beneath the dignity of the Senate.”
Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, issued a joint statement Tuesday about the redistricting.
“We are encouraged by [Gov. Bob] McDonnell’s statements today expressing disapproval of the tactics that were used,” according to the statement. “We urge legislative leaders and other elected officials to do the right thing to correct this disappointing and disruptive partisan action.”
The Senate took the vote on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday — a fact Democratic consultant Kenton Ngo criticized for its likely conservative ramifications. The redistricting makes the surrounding districts less diverse, and accordingly more likely to vote Republican, Ngo said.
“Republicans waited until a Civil Rights Leader [Sen. Marsh] went away to ram a redistricting bill through when no one was expecting,” he said. “This is a particular problem in southern states, particularly after 2000. If you take a black voter out of one district, that district becomes whiter.”
Politics Prof. Larry Sabato said in an email Tuesday the bill was passed because Virginia Republicans in the Senate see an opportunity to expand their numbers quickly by 2015 and stop the 20-20 tie from being broken by increasingly independent Lieut. Gov. Bill Bolling. If the Republicans do not redraw district lines now, new lines cannot be drawn until 2021, and will not take effect until the 2023 election cycle, he added. “Additional Republicans are very likely to be elected by 2015,” Sabato said.
Current redistricting plans could have far-reaching implications, Ngo said.
“It happens every 10 years according to the Virginia State Constitution,” Ngo said. “Every year they pass technical adjustments, and they normally have very little impact. It sets a precedent that mid-decade redistricting is fair game.”
Some propose that this measure is unconstitutional because it is in effect instituting a redistricting change, rather than merely a technical adjustment.
“The Virginia Constitution says redistricting should take place ‘in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter,’” Sen. George L. Barker, D-Alexandria, said. “This type of action is not permissible under the Constitution.”
Sabato predicts that if this bill passes both houses and is signed by the Governor, there will “almost certainly” be a court challenge.
“The Virginia Constitution says redistricting should be done in the year after the Census (2011),” Sabato said. “Of course, the courts may rule that the legislature is not precluded from engineering redistricting more frequently.”
Virginia Democrats’ “fury” about the districting change will likely hurt McDonnell’s chances of getting his legislative goals through the General Assembly, Sabato said.
“Despite what the Governor says, most Democrats do not believe the governor was unaware of what his party was up to in the Senate,” he said.
Sen. John Watkins (R-10), the bill’s sponsor, did not return a request for comment for this article, but told the Associated Press he had proposed the redistricting to ensure Virginia stayed in accordance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.