Negotiations broke down Friday between members of Virginia's bipartisan redistricting commission after Democrats and Republicans failed to agree on which proposed maps they should use as a starting point.
The meeting ended after Democratic citizen co-chair Greta Harris left. The impasse comes just two days before the commission is supposed to turn in maps for Virginia's state House and Senate districts.
“At this point, I don’t feel as though all members on the commission are sincere in their willingness to compromise and create fair maps for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Harris said before leaving.
A number of other members also left, effectively ending the meeting because it lacked a quorum. Others wanted to push on.
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Harris told The Associated Press in an email that she did not resign from the commission, and that she had only left the meeting.
The commission is tasked with dividing the state’s voters into new legislative and congressional districts, while also trying to ensure that Black and minority voters are given a fair shot to elect candidates of their choice.
The 16-member commission is evenly split between Democratic and Republican appointees. And it was already struggling to break a partisan divide before Friday's impasse.
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Bipartisan cooperation has proved elusive, not only in Virginia, but in Ohio and New York. Redistricting commissions in all three states are meeting for the first time this year and have seen members splinter into partisan camps.
The collective gridlock highlights how difficult it can be to purge politics from the once-a-decade process of realigning boundaries for U.S. House and state legislative seats.
“The fact that this process has been as contentious as it is really speaks to the kind of trench warfare politics that we’ve long seen in Washington, and we’re seeing more and more of in Virginia," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “Compared to a generation ago, there are very few moderate voices visible in Virginia.”
Farnsworth cautioned Friday afternoon that Virginia's redistricting commission still had two days to meet its Oct. 10 deadline.
“If they don’t meet the deadline, they have failed Virginia," Farnsworth said. “But the deadline hasn’t come yet."
Virginia's commission members have found zero bipartisan consensus after scrutinizing scores of squiggles on multitudes of maps. And on Friday morning, they were still working off two sets of maps: one drawn by a Republican map drawer and one drawn by Democrats.
They eventually took two votes on which map or maps to use as a starting point, with the hope of then settling differences over a handful of districts. But each proposal failed along party lines.
At that point, Harris, the Democratic co-chair, said she didn't see a need to continue.
“We tried to recognize that Virginia is growing ... and growing primarily in communities of color, and to ensure that their voice was counted and valued in a state that hasn’t always done that,” Harris said. “But I think partisanship sort of seeped into the spirit of this commission.”
State Sen. Bill Stanley, a Republican, disagreed. He said the commission was obligated to find a way forward instead of “throwing in the towel.”
“I don’t think that’s what we were thinking when we passed the (redistricting commission) legislation, when the voters voted on it and when it became a part of the (state) Constitution,” he said.
OneVirginia2021, a redistricting reform advocacy group, said in a tweet on Friday that the breakdown was “not what voters wanted, nor is it what we wanted either."
“For now, we are monitoring the fluid situation," the group said.
Making the commission’s work even tougher is the need for a supermajority to approve any map. Approving either a House or a Senate map requires not only the support of 12 of the 16 commissioners, but also approval by six of the eight legislative commissioners and six of the eight citizen commissioners.
What’s more, if two of the four appointees from the House of Delegates oppose the House map, it fails even if the other 14 commissioners support it. The same is true of the Senate map.
It’s unclear if missing the Oct. 10 deadline presents a significant problem. The law gives the commission 14 days after “its initial failure to submit a plan to the General Assembly.”
If the commission still can’t submit a plan, or if the General Assembly rejects its plan, the Supreme Court of Virginia will draw the maps.