State NAACP, others lodge criticism of proposed redistricting lines

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/23/2021, 6 p.m.
Flawed data and too little assurance of fair representation for Black voters in Richmond, Hampton Roads and other sectors of …
Mr. Barnette

Flawed data and too little assurance of fair representation for Black voters in Richmond, Hampton Roads and other sectors of the state.

That’s the view of the Virginia State Conference NAACP and its lawyers after poring over the proposed boundaries for congressional and General Assembly districts issued earlier this month by the Virginia Supreme Court.

The critical findings from the state’s oldest and largest civil rights group represent a proverbial shot across the bow of the state’s highest court to remind that its final decisions are subject to review of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both the U.S. and Virginia constitutions require political boundaries to be redrawn every 10 years following the latest population census, and the state Supreme Court was handed the job after a new bipartisan redistricting commission failed to agree on new maps. The redistricting maps proposed by the state’s highest court were prepared by two special experts — one each nominated by Democrats and Republicans — in accordance with an order from the court.

The court accepted public comment through Monday but has not yet released final maps; the court also has not set a date for doing so.

“The new maps must be drawn to respect communities of interest, including Black communities of interest,” said state NAACP President Robert N. Barnette Jr., noting that the two redistricting experts, Bernard Grofman and Sean Trende, are aware of that requirement.

According to an 85-page memo the state NAACP issued Dec. 17, Mr. Grofman and Mr. Trende have botched the job by drawing proposed lines that break up Black communities and by overstating the Black voting age population in multiple districts.

The overstatements are due to the experts’ use of estimated data the U.S. Census produced in its American Community Survey instead of more reliable data from the 2020 U.S. Census, the memo noted.

The memo was prepared by the state NAACP’s legal team, which includes attorneys from the national NAACP, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Northern Virginia law firm of Hogan Lovells.

In the memo, the NAACP called for changes in 24 House of Delegates districts, six state Senate districts and two congressional districts to address the issues that were found.

Maps showing the changes the NAACP proposed were included with the memo.

“Our proposed maps are representative of the Black communities of interest in these districts

because they were drawn with extensive input from community members,” Mr. Barnette said, as he called on Mr. Grofman and Mr. Trende to adjust their maps “to uphold fair representation for Black Virginians.”

Others also have noted that the maps the experts produced reduce the number of majorityBlack districts from 11 to seven in both chambers.

Mr. Grofman and Mr. Trende justified reducing the number of such districts by stating they created more majority-minority districts of Black, brown and Asian people who could form coalitions.

The NAACP memo indicated that such districts might fail the tests the U.S. Supreme Court has established for considering race in redistricting and conflict with requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act and a new state law on redistricting requirements.

“Black Virginians have a right to fair representation, which means map-drawers must consider the continuing effects of Virginia’s history of racial discrimination when drawing new district lines,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“Federal and state law make clear,” he continued, “that districts must be drawn so as to ensure that Black voters are provided an equal opportunity to participate in the political process of the Commonwealth.”

The NAACP is not alone in providing critical comments on the proposed maps, which among other things, would potentially eliminate up to 24 current incumbents in the House of Delegates and 10 in the state Senate.

Redistricting expert Richard G. Zimermann of Chesapeake noted many of the proposed districts are so oddly shaped that they fail one or more of the standard statistical tests for compactness.

Based on the standards set by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a noted nonpartisan center on redistricting, Mr. Zimermann said that four of the 11 congressional districts,

29 of the 40 proposed Senate districts and 90 of the 100 House districts would fail one or more of the statistical tests.

In a review of the proposed congressional districts, he found that the maps break up communities of interest rather than preserve them.

The NAACP found a similar problem, particularly in regard to the 3rd Congressional District, now represented by Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott. The NAACP memo said some Black sections of the current district were broken off, while other populations with “no connection to the 3rd District” were added.

Ahead of the issuance of final maps, some incumbent politicians already are making plans to compete in revamped districts.

Among them is Richmond Delegate Betsy B. Carr, who could end up in a new district with two other Democratic incumbent House members, Delegates Dawn M. Adams and Jeffrey M. Bourne. Delegate Carr emailed supporters that she will compete in the new district if that change is finalized.

Separately, incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger of Henrico, who represents the 7th District, could be drawn into a revamped 1st District. She reportedly has told supporters that she is considering running in the redrawn 7th District to continue her work in Congress.