House Speaker, Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, presides over the House during the session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. A panel of federal judges has chosen a redistricting map for Virginia's House of Delegates that could shift some districts toward Democrats and help the party regain control in this year's election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Court picks Virginia redistricting plan that helps Democrats

January 23, 2019 - 5:31 pm

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A panel of federal judges has chosen a redistricting map for Virginia's House of Delegates that could shift some districts toward Democrats and help the party gain control in this year's election.

The judges ordered a new map in June after ruling that lawmakers had racially gerrymandered eleven House districts by packing black voters into them.

On Tuesday, the judges chose new district lines from a series of proposals submitted by a special master. The judges gave all sides until Feb. 1 to file objections.

An analysis of the maps by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project shows the plan could shift six Republican-held districts toward Democrats, including the district of House Speaker Kirk Cox, which would become 32 percent more Democratic.

Cox called the redistricting modules chosen by the court "legally indefensible" and said they attempt to "give Democrats an advantage at every turn."

"The modules selected by the Court target senior Republicans, myself included, without a substantive basis in the law," Cox said in a statement.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the GOP's appeal this spring. The high court rejected a request from Republicans to put on hold the lower court's ruling, which means the election season will begin using whatever map is finalized by the lower court.

Cox said that no matter what happens with the redistricting "Republicans are prepared to defend and rebuild our majority in the House."

Democrats made huge gains in the 2017 House election, wrestling 15 seats away from Republicans.

When the votes in all 100 House districts were added up, Democrats beat Republicans by a margin of 54 percent to 44 percent. Despite that, Republicans still held on to a slim majority in the House, a result some Democrats said showed that gerrymandering insulated Republicans from the will of the voters.

Republicans currentlyhold a 51-48 majority in the House, with one additional seat to be decided in a special election next month.

The Virginia Public Access Project calculates that the maps would move between 370,000 and 436,000 voters to new districts. The 11 districts that were found to be gerrymandered were mostly in the Richmond and Hampton Roads area.

University of California, Irvine political science professor Bernard Grofman was chosen as a special master after the GOP-controlled General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam were unable to reach an agreement on a redistricting plan. Grofman has said redrawing the lines of the districts also affected some surrounding districts, resulting in a total of 26 districts being redrawn.

In addition to Cox, Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would see a sharp Democratic shift of 27.4 percentage points in his district, under the Virginia Public Access Project's analysis.

Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, whose 2017 re-election race ended in a tie, would also see a significant Democratic shift — 13.6 percentage points— in his district, under the access project's analysis. Control of the House was decided when Yancey's name was drawn from a bowl, allowing him to hold on to his seat over his Democratic challenger.

Jones and Yancey did not immediately return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

All 100 House seats will be on the ballot in November, as well as all 40 Senate seats.

Marc Elias, an attorney who brought the redistricting lawsuit on behalf of a group of African-American voters, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

After the court announced its choice of maps Tuesday, Elias said on Twitter that the decision adopts the configuration the group advocated.

"We are one important step closer to the end of the GOP's racial gerrymander," Elias tweeted.

The new district lines would also make some districts more Republican, including the 93rd District, held by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, which would have a Republican shift of 12.1 percentage points, according to the VPAP analysis.

Jesse Richman, a political science professor at Old Dominion University, said the redrawn districts could shift the balance of power in the General Assembly.

"The state has moved in a much bluer direction lately, and on the basis of statewide elections, it looks like the Democrats may well have the upper hand in state politics," Richman said.

"The district lines had provided some shelter for Republicans in the House of Delegates. ...If this stands, we're more likely to see the chamber change parties in the next election, barring some major unforeseen shift in political winds."

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