Facing redistricting showdown, Va. lawmakers could leave it to the courts

WASHINGTON — As Virginia’s elected leaders stake out positions on how to redraw the commonwealth’s congressional district map, there is no certainty that a new plan will be approved before a court-ordered deadline, potentially leaving the map-drawing process in the hands of judges.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Republican leadership in the General Assembly have already clashed over whether an Aug. 17 special session should be held at all, and whether or not a proposed compromise should be worked out among the governor and General Assembly leaders before the session.

Republicans control both the House of Delegates and state Senate. A court has denied GOP requests to extend the Sept. 1 deadline until after November’s General Assembly elections. That decision follows the original ruling that the state’s 11 congressional districts were unconstitutionally drawn based on race.

Michael McDonald, a former George Mason University political science expert now at the University of Florida, believes McAuliffe will only accept a plan with relatively significant changes to the existing U.S. House districts that were largely drawn to protect Republican seats.

“He may ask for more from the legislature than what the legislature may be willing to give, in terms of a compromise,” McDonald says.

McDonald was an expert for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that is forcing the map changes and believes the most likely scenario is no deal at all.

“Faced, possibly, with a gubernatorial veto, and the governor forcing the legislature to provide more Democratic opportunities in districts that don’t necessarily have to be touched in order to comply with the court ruling, the legislature may decide that it’s in their partisan interest to allow the court to provide a remedy,” he says.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that when courts are forced to draw the lines, the court should make only the most narrow changes needed to fix the constitutional issue.

The lawsuit claimed black voters were packed into Rep. Bobby Scott’s 3rd District, which stretches from Hampton Roads to Richmond. Scott is a Democrat and is the lone black representative among the state’s congressional delegation.

A potential fix offered by the group that filed the suit would shift the boundaries of the 3rd District and Rep. Scott Rigell’s 2nd District. That potential change would likely give a Democratic challenger in the 2nd District a better chance against Rigell, a Republican.

It is also possible that without a deal, the General Assembly would pass a plan the governor had not signed off on ahead of time. But McAuliffe said on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” in July that state leaders need to come together to get a deal done.

“We have to do it, we’re under court order,” he said.

Last month, McAuliffe asked the leaders of the House and Senate to meet with him and work out a deal, but they said the process should involve all members of the General Assembly.

“Redistricting is a lengthy, complicated process that requires legislative committee meetings, public hearings and input from all 140 legislators. I agree with the governor that the process should be open and transparent, but a meeting to work out a deal ahead of time is the opposite of that,” House Speaker Bill Howell said in a statement at the time.

The redistricting issue, a dispute over a new Supreme Court of Virginia justice and increased focus from Republicans on Planned Parenthood in Virginia have become major political talking points this election year as the parties battle for control of the state Senate.

No matter how the changes are made, they are expected to be in place for the 2016 congressional election.

A separate lawsuit has been filed challenging the constitutionality of General Assembly districts as well.

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