FAIRFAX COUNTY, Virginia - When a redistricting commission appointed by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell came to a conference room at George Mason University Tuesday night (March 15), just about everyone present had an opinion about how the state's new legislative and congressional maps should look.
One speaker asked the commissioners to respect the interests of Hispanics, noting that Hispanics are now 8 percent of Virginia's population, but that none serve in the state's General Assembly. Another asked the panel to consider the interests of Northern Virginia's large Vietnamese community. A third suggested that young voters along the region's subway lines formed a coherent group that should be kept together. Some speakers wanted more more politically competitive districts, while one asked that incumbent legislators be protected to preserve institutional memory.
The passions were strong enough that it was easy, for a moment, to forget that the commissioners seated at the front of the room don't have any formal power. They're part of the 11-member "Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting" that McDonnell created by executive order
. The decision to create an advisory body came after years of failed attempts in the Virginia legislature to place redistricting in the hands of an independent commission. In the end, however, both state legislative and congressional redistricting will be handled like any other piece of legislation, as they have been in the past.
Besides the advisory panel, students from around the state have submitted plans for redrawing the lines in an academic competition
. "We're going to see a lot of maps that draw a lot of incumbents out of office," Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University professor who is leading the competition, told
. The plans that judges decide are best will be presented in Richmond.
But will either the advisory commission or the redistricting competition actually influence the legislators in charge? With Virginia's legislature set to begin a special redistricting session next month, that's looking unlikely.
this week that all 11 Virginia members of the U.S. House were supporting a map designed to help the delegation's 8 Republicans and 3 Democrats get reelected. Likewise, the Daily Press quoted
Democrat Richard Saslaw, the Senate Majority Leader, as saying on a radio show that a "gentleman's agreement" had been reached between the Democratic majority in the Senate and the Republican majority in the House. "I'm not gonna interfere with the lines the House draws for the House," Saslaw said. "And they're not gonna interfere with the lines I draw for the Senate."