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Federal Court orders Virginia to adopt new map, mend racially gerrymandered districts

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RICHMOND, Va. — A federal court on Thursday approved district boundaries for the Virginia House of Delegates redrawn by a court-appointed expert that will likely make it more difficult for House Republicans to defend their current 51-48 majority.

Judges at the the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia approved the new map in a 2-1 opinion.

The decision follows a June 2018 federal court ruling that the House districts established in the 2011 redistricting cycle were racially gerrymandered.

In the June decision, the court found that the districts were “drawn primarily on the basis of race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

At the time, the court ordered the General Assembly to adopt a new redistricting plan to fix the constitutional violations in the gerrymandered districts.   The court ordered that the new districts  be decided by the General Assembly together with Gov. Ralph Northam, but the Republican-controlled House and Democratic governor were unable to agree on a plan.

“Overwhelming evidence in this case shows that, contrary to . . . constitutional mandate, the state has sorted voters into districts based on the color of their skin,”  Judge Barbara Milano Keenan of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia wrote.

The new map, created by University of California-Irvine political science professor Bernard Grofman, is a combined product of months of remedial and alternative plans proposed by Dr. Grofman, voters across Virginia’s 12 districts, and various non-partisan third parties.

According to the court, the new map works to “remedy the constitutional deficiencies while following traditional districting criteria and upholding minorities’ rights as defined in the Voting Rights Act.”

While Republicans argued that the map “attempts to give Democrats an advantage at every turn,” the court ruled that it was designed “without regard to partisan outcome in the non-challenged districts, and that he treated all incumbents equally.”

Based on 2012 presidential election results, non-profit, non-partisan group the Virginia Public Access Project has identified six Republican-held seats that would potentially become harder to defend under the new map:

  • HD 66 – Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights)
  • HD 76 – Chris Jones (R-Suffolk)
  • HD 81 – Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach)
  • HD 83 – Chris Stolle (R-Virginia Beach)
  • HD 91 – Gordon Helsel (R-Poquoson)
  • HD 94 – David Yancey (R-Newport News)

According to VPAP, the plan would move at least 370,000 voters to new districts.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Republican appeal of the lower court decision in March, a legal action that VPAP says could delay the primary elections from June until after Labor Day.

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