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Editorial: Redistricting judges fall short of mandate

Editorial: Redistricting judges fall short of mandate

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Sometimes government appears to move maddeningly slow. Right now, though, the machinery of Virginia’s new redistricting process is whirring right along at an exceptionally brisk pace.

On Nov. 3, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment that takes the power of drawing new district lines out of the hands of the majority party in the General Assembly — right now Democrats — and gives it to a special commission.

This commission is, by design, evenly split between legislators and non-legislators and then evenly split again between Democrats and Republicans and split yet one more time between the House of Delegates and state Senate. In December, party leaders in each chamber appointed their eight members — two from each party in each chamber.

Then came the process of picking the eight non-legislators.

First, some 1,238 people applied by the Dec. 28 deadline. By Monday, just a week later, party leaders had reduced that to 62 finalists — at least 16 from each party in each chamber. (The number is 62 not 64 or more because six people, five Republicans and one Democrat, were nominated by parties in both chambers.) Then on Wednesday, just three days later, the retired judges picked two names from each list for the final eight.

You might wonder at the speed with which party leaders cut that pool of 1,238 applicants to 62 finalists. Don’t be. Most of their applicants stood no chance, no matter how sterling their credentials might have been. Since party leaders are the ones making the choices, they’re not inclined to go with anyone who looks too independent and therefore might be unpredictable. Politically speaking, all 62 finalists were known quantities in one way or another. The Virginia Public Access Project matched the names with campaign contributions and, not surprisingly, found many donors on the list. The biggest was Marvin Gilliam of Bristol, former vice president of a family owned coal mining company who has given more than $927,109 to Republican causes over the years. If you wanted a truly independent commission — well, you didn’t have that choice. That’s not something either party in the General Assembly was ever likely to pass.

The judges had until next Tuesday to make their picks and we had prepared an editorial for today giving them some advice on how to do so. They beat us to that; the wheels of justice this time did not grind slowly at all.

The General Assembly, in writing the rules for the commission, laid down some guidance. It said the selections should reflect “the racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity of the Commonwealth.”

The judges did not take that as literally as they should have.

Gender equity is the most obvious rule the judges ignored. Of the legislators already named to the panel, three are women and five are men. (Democrats picked two men and two women; Republicans picked three men and one woman). That means if the commission’s final composition truly reflects the gender diversity of Virginia, the judges should have balanced things out by appointing five women and three men. There is no other math possible if equity is the goal. Instead, the judges picked six men and two women to give the full commission a roster of 11 men and five women. That does not represent “the gender diversity of the Commonwealth.” That alone calls the results into question even before the commission meets. Three of those men selected could fix that by immediately resigning and calling on the judges to appoint women instead. That won’t happen but it should.

The judges did choose from an uneven pool. Men applied more enthusiastically for the commission than women did. Of the original pool of 1,238 applicants, 62% were men, 38% were women. Of the 62 finalists picked by party leaders, there was more gender balance but the final pool still skewed male. Democrats nominated 15 men and 19 women; Republicans nominated 20 men and eight women. Nonetheless, could have righted the situation and did not. Ideally, Virginia won’t have to go through redistricting for another decade but it’s not too early to think about how that might proceed. At the risk of creating a Noah’s Ark prescription, if the legislature is serious about a panel that reflects “the gender diversity of the Commonwealth” it could simply mandate that the half the seats go to men and half go to women.

The judges did a better job when it came to racial and geographic diversity. Virginia’s population is 19.9% Black. That means at least three Black members should be among the 16 — that would be 18.7%. Two Black legislators are among those named earlier, so that means at least one of the judges’ appointees should have been Black. The judges did better than that — their picks included two Black nominees and one who is multiracial.

Some 9.8% of Virginia residents are Hispanic, which means 1.6 commission members should be Hispanic. So, effectively two. None of the legislators named are Hispanic but one of the judges’ picks is (Jose A. Feliciano Jr., a federal security agent from Fredericksburg and a nominee of House Republicans). The state’s Asian population is 6.9%. That would translate into one seat and, indeed, the judges did pick one Asian-Asian member (James Abrenio, a Fairfax County lawyer nominated by Senate Democrats).

Gender diversity was the easiest box to check off and the judges failed. Geographical diversity is the hardest and the judges did manage to check it. We wrote before that the commission shouldn’t be considered representative unless there were members from Southwest and Southside Virginia. Republicans took care of Southside with their legislative appointees — state Sen. Steve Newman of Lynchburg and Del. Les Adams of Pittsylvania County. The judges added one more member from Southside — Richard O. Harrell III, a trucking executive from South Boston who was nominated by Senate Republicans. They also made sure there was one member from Southwest Virginia — the aforementioned Guilliam, also nominated by Senate Republicans.

There were three nominees from the Roanoke Valley and five from the Shenandoah Valley. None made it, meaning those regions have no representatives on the panel. If anything, Southside, with three members, is overrepresented while the Roanoke Valley is the largest metro area in the state with no members.

Here’s the basic math problem: We have 11 congressional districts, drawn by population, but only eight citizen seats available. Somebody’s going to get left out. Now we know who.

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