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A County Divided
SoVaNow.com / January 23, 2013Secretive and underhanded” is how one Democratic member of the Virginia Senate, Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) described Monday’s surprise passage of a bill to redraw Virginia’s 40 Senate districts. The off-year redistricting plan passed on a party line vote of 20-19 in the evenly-divided State Senate.
The vote was taken while Richmond senator Henry Marsh, a Democrat and a veteran of the civil rights movement, was in Washington to attend the inauguration of President Obama.
The plan, which still must pass the House and be signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, would divide Mecklenburg County into two Senate districts. One of the districts would have a minority-majority makeup, which Republican sponsors said would enhance the chances of African-American candidates joining the Senate. Democrats cried foul, saying the plan is a gerrymander that dilutes the party’s representation.
Some also called the sudden move unconstitutional, and vowed to challenge it in court. If signed by McDonnell, the changes would take effect in 2015. Redrawing of election maps normally takes place in the year following the U.S. Census.
Under the plan, Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County and Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County would have their districts combined.
The new majority minority district in Southside Virginia would stretch between Petersburg and Danville. The new district has no incumbent member in the Senate.
Ruff (R-Clarksville) would land in a district pointing west. He would keep Charlotte and Lunenburg counties, but lose the eastern part of Mecklenburg County, all of Nottoway County and the parts of Brunswick, Campbell, Dinwiddie, and Prince George counties that he currently represents. He would pick up all of Henry County, the City of Martinsville and part of Prince Edward County.
Brunswick County, the eastern portion of Mecklenburg and parts of Halifax County would fold into the minority-majority 25th Senate District.
The bill’s sponsor, John Watkins (R-Powhatan) claimed, “This plan, in fact, better meets all of these criteria [compact districts that do not dilute minority voting rights] than the districts currently in effect.” He offered no explanation as to why the legislation was pushed through on the day that Marsh was in Washington for the Presidential Inauguration.
He also failed to note his plan created several new Republican friendly districts in a process known as packing.
Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said through a spokesperson that he did not support the GOP plan, and was worried about the consequences.
This “is not something that he supported. He fears that this action could set a dangerous precedent for future redistricting actions, and he is concerned that it could create a hyper-partisan atmosphere that could make it very difficult for us to address other important priorities,” said a Bolling spokesperson.
Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Chief of Staff, Tucker Martin also suggested that the Governor was blind-sided by the Senate move. He said, “The governor was very surprised to learn that a redistricting bill would be voted on by the Senate today. He has not seen this legislation.”
Even if the bill makes it to through the legislative process, it has several hurdles to overcome. Changes to Virginia’s district boundaries must be approved by a federal judge or the Justice Department under the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The state must prove that the purpose of the change will not have the effect of discriminating based on race or color.
Republicans will also, most likely, face a court challenge initiated by Senate Democrats, who will argue that the redrawn districts are more than a technical adjustment to districts. Therefore, the plan is not allowed under the Virginia Constitution. Article two, section six of the Virginia Constitution grants the legislature the right to redraw legislative boundary lines every 10 years after the national census.
HB259, as amended now goes back to the House for approval or it can go to conference, where members of the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate can hash out their differences.
Ruff, who voted for the plan, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
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