By Mark Robinson, Capital News Service
Virginia Democrats continued to call a Republican-backed plan to redistrict the state's senate seats unconstitutional on Wednesday -- but GOP leaders say the measure could actually help the Commonwealth better comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.
After Republicans narrowly passed a bill Monday that included an amendment to redraw the lines of several state senate districts, the result of which in many cases was more seats with GOP-leaning voters, Democrats took to the Senate floor Tuesday to blast the measure, calling it unconstitutional.
In remarks on the Senate floor on Monday, the bill's sponsor, Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, said the move would create a sixth majority-African American Senate district.
Watkins introduced the revision to House Bill 259, which was originally written to make technical adjustments to House districts established in 2011. His revision passed 20-19 on a party-line vote. Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, was absent: He was in Washington for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
But Democrats pointed to Virginia’s Constitution, which says redistricting may only occur every 10 years, following the federal census. The last census was done in 2010, and redistricting occurred in 2011. Thus, Senate Democrats have a case to challenge the redistricting plan in state court, John Aughenbaugh, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an email.
The changes would move most Vienna voters into different districts.
State Sen. Chap Petersen's 34th District would lose much of Vienna, Dunn Loring and the area surrounding Oakton High School, moving those precincts to District 35, a seat held by Dick Saslaw (D).
"This redistricting is out of time, out of order and outside the constitution which states that redistricting can only be done in 2011. Our community is being politically torn apart without any input or consideration," Petersen said in a statement after voting against the bill.
Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who would become an "odd man out" in the plan as his district combines with that of a Republican counterpart, told his followers on Twitter: “Everybody needs to take a deep breath. We’re a long way from this redistricting becoming law. We have a lot of fight still in us.”
To become law, the bill passed by the Senate still must be approved by the House of Delegates and then signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Moreover, it would need federal approval to take effect. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires states with a history of voter discrimination to have any major voting changes approved by the U.S. Justice Department or a federal judge.
“We’re a long way from knowing if this is going to be real or not, but I’m not afraid of any district,” Deeds said. “I believe in the process. I’ll do what I have to do.”
The same act, however, also casts the bill in a different right. The Voting Rights Act calls for states to create as many voting districts with a majority of minority voters as possible. Virginia currently has five; the Senate plan would make it six.
Watkins said the creation of a sixth district with an African American majority would save Virginia from litigation under the act.
Under the bill, the number of Republicans in Watkins’ district would increase by more than 8 percent, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group. The number of Republicans in Hanger’s district would jump almost 15 percent.
Hanger could not be reached for comment.
In a joint statement Tuesday, U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, called Senate’s approval of the measure “disappointing and disruptive partisan action.”
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who holds a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, has “grave concerns about the adoption of a revised redistricting plan,” according to an email sent by an aide. The aide said the measure was “not something that (Bolling) supported.”
According to the aide, the lieutenant governor is afraid the measure will distract from issues such as transportation and education. Both are priorities for McDonnell in his last year in office.
Tucker Martin, an aide to the governor, said in an email McDonnell has not seen the legislation but would review it closely should it reach his desk
If approved, the new boundaries would take effect for the next Senate elections in 2015.
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