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Virginia House subcommittee votes down 5 bipartisan redistricting bills

A House subcommittee in Virginia’s Republican-led General Assembly on Tuesday voted to preserve lawmakers’ ability to draw the boundaries of voting districts, defying a national trend in which several states have moved to set up nonpartisan commissions to draw the lines.

Five bipartisan bills to change the redistricting process were defeated on a party-line vote in a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee, with GOP lawmakers saying the proposals were “premature.”

“We’re not going to do redistricting for five more years and it seems like every year, the federal courts tweak what we can and cannot consider for redistricting,” said Delegate Mark Cole, Spotsylvania Republican and chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee.

Redistricting has become a hot topic nationally, with many analysts blaming political polarization on the burgeoning number of districts in which one political party or the other has a lock on the seat.

To combat that, several states have moved to independent commissions or other schemes to limit the power of the legislature to draw lines.

Virginia’s legislature is facing a court order to redraw the congressional map it created after the 2010 census, which resulted in eight GOP-held seats and just three Democratic seats. A federal court in Richmond has ruled that the map put too many black voters into the 3rd Congressional District, represented by Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott.

Republicans are appealing the decision, but on Monday, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts sustained the ruling, which means the legislature must continue drawing the district lines.

That could endanger Republican Rep. Randy Forbes’ seat in the 4th Congressional District, since he will end up with many of those Democratic-leaning black votes.

Three of the five bills that were considered in the subcommittee would have left the power to draw lines in the hands of the legislature, but also would have pushed lawmakers to take into account criteria such as keeping communities of interest together.

Two other bills would have pushed for independent redistricting commissions, with one of the measures sending the issue to voters as a referendum, and the other setting up a pilot program commission that would redraw any districts struck down by the courts.

Brian Cannon, executive director of Virginia redistricting reform coalition OneVirginia2021, expressed disappointment that the legislature killed the bills, saying it has become a pattern for Virginia Republicans.

“Today’s actions were particularly egregious, given that all five bills were voted down with one block vote rather than given individual votes,” Mr. Cannon said in a statement. “This motion by Delegate Mark Cole is seemingly unprecedented, given how different each bill was, as was noted by Delegate Mark Sickles. We strongly feel that each bill deserves its own vote.”

He held out hope for action, pointing to redistricting bills that had advanced in the state Senate. Those bills are likely to die when they reach the House.

Neighboring Maryland also has struggled with redistricting reform, but the roles are reversed there, with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan pushing for an independent commission and Democrats, who control the legislature, killing his efforts.