State ordered to redistrict

Published 10:21 pm Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Virginia General Assembly has been ordered by a federal court to redraw 11 House district lines by Oct. 30.

The General Assembly redrew its district lines in 2011 based on the results of the 2010 census. Three years later, a complaint was filed alleging that the redistricting unconstitutionally crowded a number of black voters into 12 districts so that their influence would be limited in the rest of the state.

A federal district court determined that race was not a predominant factor in 11 of the 12 districts.

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In March 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the district court employed an incorrect legal standard in that decision and wanted a federal three-judge panel to reconsider racial gerrymandering in the other 11 districts.

Delegate Chris Jones, who represents the 76th District encompassing much of Suffolk, was the chief architect of the plan and he testified in front of a three-judge panel defending the plan.

Jones said, during the hearing, that race was just one of plenty of factors the GOP relied on when drawing the new boundary lines.

Jones did not return calls for comment on the federal court ruling.

From the 11 districts that require redrawing, two directly affect Suffolk citizens — the 77th and 80th. Cliff Hayes represents the 77th District, and Matthew James represents the 80th District. Both are Democrats.

James was elected in 2010, and he has been in office since. The redistricting occurred when he was a freshman delegate.

“I didn’t know enough to think it was a problem,” James said.

James focused on serving his community by getting to know them, and he didn’t pay much mind to the redistricting. After the complaint, James wanted to focus on the modifications to his district and “focus on serving.”

James would not comment on whether he believes the federal ruling was the right decision, and he believes it is “a bit premature to make a decision.”

“I never speak for my voters,” James said. “We talk to the voters who represent us and let them know we will be fair and consistent. That’s what we do as public officials.”

Delegate Hayes had a viewpoint similar to James.

“The only thing I’ve been concerned about is representing my constituents,” Hayes said. “Representing the 77th District is the only thing on my radar.”

While racial gerrymandering was seen as the main complaint, the original redistricting had bipartisan support and members of the Legislative Black Caucus also gave their support.

“I think, objectively, this had bipartisan support,” Brian Cannon said.

Cannon is the executive director of One Virginia 2021, and his organization helps to educate Virginians about the redistricting process and how gerrymandering can harm voting communities.

“The status quo is broken. People aren’t happy, and they overwhelmingly want to change it,” Cannon said. “We want a process by which communities are prioritized instead of re-election strategy.”

Cannon believes that proper redistricting could help solve mis-assigned voter issues and split fewer precincts and help people better know their legislative representatives.