New redistricting move proposes big changes to Virginia Senate districts

On Monday, the Virginia Senate narrowly passed (20-19) a new redistricting bill that will dramatically change the boundaries of the current Senate districts drawn just two years ago.  The plan, passed by Senate Republicans on a party-line vote when a Democratic Senator was away on Inauguration Day, has been criticized by Democrats as an overt attempt to give Republicans an advantage in future elections by “packing” and “cracking” black communities in Virginia in order to dilute their voting power.  Republican Sen. John Watkins, the legislator who sponsored the redistricting amendments, instead says the new plan would defuse possible Voting Rights Act legal challenges by creating a new minority-majority district and also cited improvements in district compactness.

The move by Senate Republicans is unusual, as such massive changes to a district map are typically reserved for redistricting sessions right after the decennial census.  As a result, this recent redistricting drama has garnered much national attention this week and was a top-ten story on Wednesday.

The Virginia Public Access Project has made the proposed HB259 plan available for viewing on their interactive maps:

Virginia Map of Senate Redistricting Plan HB259

The proposed plan has the potential to tilt power in the evenly divided Senate towards Republicans.  Several Northern Virginia districts, currently held by Democrats, are shifted to include more Republican-leaning communities.  Also, the seat currently held by Democratic Senator Creigh Deeds would be merged with the district held by Republican Senator Emmett Hanger Jr.

Governor Bob McDonnell has yet to say whether he would veto the plan if it reached his desk, but has said “I certainly don’t think that’s a good way to do business.”  Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling has also raised fears that such a move would inflame partisan passions in the state legislature.

Current and proposed redistricting plans can be found at the Division of Legislative Services website and non-partisan plans proposed by Virginia’s Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission made two years ago can be found here.

Dustin Cable is a Policy Associate at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service where he conducts research on topics that lie at the intersection of demographics, politics, and public policy.