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Bipartisan redistricting panel starts off with partisan maps

FALLS CHURCH (AP) A new bipartisan redistricting commission is looking at two sets of distinctly partisan maps as it sets out to draw new boundaries for Virginia’s General Assembly districts.

Democratic and Republican map drawers on Sept. 20 submitted their first statewide drafts of new maps for review by the commission as it embarks on the once-a-decade redistricting process required after the 2020 census.

The map makers were explicitly directed not to look at past election results in drawing the districts. Still, the maps submitted by the Democratic map drawer would give Democrats an advantage, while the GOP maps would do the opposite.

The Democratic maps would give Democrats a 55-45 advantage in the House of Delegates and a 21-19 advantage in the state Senate, using the 2016 presidential election — one of the closest recent statewide elections in Virginia — as a baseline measure of how voters cast their ballots.

The GOP maps would create a 50-50 split in the House and give the GOP a 21-19 advantage in the state Senate, according to an AP review of data spreadsheets on the proposed new districts provided by the commission.

At the Sept. 20 meeting, commission members talked very little about the partisan differences in the maps, largely because they wanted the initial maps to be drawn without regard to partisan politics.

But they acknowledged that others are already looking at the maps through a partisan lens. And at some point, the maps must take election results into account, because that data is used to ensure that Black and minority voters are given a fair shot to elect candidates of their choice. If the lines needlessly pack excessive majorities of Black voters into a district, or if they crack Black voting blocs in separate districts to dilute their strength, the lines can be challenged in court on allegations of racial gerrymandering.

“We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to put these maps together,” said Greta Harris, the Democratic co-chair of the commission.

Harris and Mackenzie Babichenko, the GOP co-chair, asked the map drawers to do what they can on their own to start synthesizing their disparate maps, starting with some of the less controversial areas like heavily Republican Southwest Virginia, where there is little difference between the mapmakers’ proposals.

Voters approved creation of the redistricting commission in a referendum last year, hoping for a process that would end partisan and racial gerrymandering that has plagued past redistricting efforts. So far, though, partisanship has remained part of the process. The commission hired Democratic and Republican map drawers because it could not agree on a single, nonpartisan entity.

The new process is also expected to create more competitive districts. Whether the maps submitted thus far achieve that goal is debatable. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, the number of competitive Senate districts would increase from six to seven under both the Democratic and GOP maps.

But the number of competitive House districts would shrink from 21 to 18 under the Democratic plan and 21 to 15 under the GOP plan.

VPAP defined a competitive district as one with no more than a 10-point advantage for either party, again using the 2016 presidential election as a baseline.

The commission is required under state law to submit a single set of maps to the General Assembly by Oct. 10 for an up-or-down vote. If the legislature rejects the commission’s maps, the task will fall to the state Supreme Court.

All 50 states are engaged in redistricting after the release of census data earlier this year, but Virginia is one of several doing so under newly created commissions. Other states with new redistricting commissions are also struggling to purge partisan politics from the process.

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