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Senate redistricting bill finished; Bolling calls for bi-partisan maps

RICHMOND – The Senate passed the final version of its redistricting plan late Thursday as Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling ramped up pressure for both chambers to consider a bipartisan plan.

Bolling said Thursday that the House and Senate should pass maps created by the governor’s independent bipartisan redistricting committee.

The committee, made up of judges, former elections officials and former lawmakers, spent weeks developing policies and holding public hearings to draft several House and Senate maps that focused on preserving municipal boundaries and aimed to increase the voting strength of black voters.

“If either house of the General Assembly fails to produce a redistricting plan that has widespread bipartisan support, it is my hope that Governor (Bob) McDonnell will reject those plans and substitute them with the recommendations put forth by the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting,” Bolling said in a written statement.

Bolling said garnering bipartisan support for the maps would help earn the public’s confidence that the new voting districts are fair and reasonable.

“While the current House plan has received strong bipartisan support in committee and the full House with over 90 percent of the members voting for the plan, the Senate leadership’s plan has been derided as the epitome of partisan gerrymandering by Republicans and independent observers,” he said.

McDonnell said he would review the maps once they have been finalized. The Senate plan now goes to the Republican-controlled House for approval. The Senate map was added to a bill containing the details of the House map.

No lawmakers submitted redistricting bills based on the commission’s maps. Two, however, introduced plans based on the work of college students who participated in a redistricting competition.

Republicans in the Senate failed to get a plan drawn by Sens. Jill Vogel, (R-western Loudoun), and John Watkins, (R-Powhatan), past a committee and could not manage to get it introduced.

Watkins argued that his plan was more compact and did a better job of ensuring that the majority-minority districts would clear any legal hurdles. He also said the plan doesn’t under-populate rural areas, nor does it overpopulate growing urban districts.

But Sen. George Barker, (D-Fairfax), argued that the Senate’s plan doesn’t systematically under-populate rural areas, and that the Democrats’ map also made the districts more competitive for both Republicans and Democrats.

Sen. Donald McEachin, (D-Henrico), questioned why Watkins created majority-minority districts with as many as 55 percent of the population black, which Vogel said is the benchmark they need to comply with federal law.

“By putting this plan together, (Watkins) continues that tradition of packing minority districts. We are now at that point, that we don’t need these humungous numbers in order to be effective,” McEachin said.

By putting so many black voters in one district, it limits their ability to have an influence on election results in neighboring districts.

McEachin said the Democrat’s plan undid the packing created during the 2001 redistricting process and will strength the voice of black voters in the ballot box.

Vogel said she believes that because in today’s majority-minority districts, 55 percent of the adults are black, so the new districts cannot erode that percentage or the U.S. Department of Justice will not approve the map.

She also wanted to see whether compact maps that project those minority voters could be drawn while still reducing the variation in population from district to district. The plan she devised with Watkins had a half percent deviation compared to the 2 percent deviation the Democrat’s map used.

“One person, one vote is the mission of redistricting,” Vogel said.

The Senate voted along party lines 22-to-18 to approve the plan, sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell, (D-Fairfax).

The plan reduces the number of senators serving the Virginia Beach and Chesapeake area. It also shifts some districts to northern Virginia, where Stafford, Loudoun and Prince William counties saw the greatest population growth during the past decade.

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