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Will there be a special election next year?

All 100 seats for the House of Delegates may be up for grabs again in 2016, no matter what the outcome in this year’s November General Election. 

The General Assembly will be called back to Richmond for a special session this summer after a string of court hearings, going all the way to the Supreme Court. A lawsuit asserts that there was racial bias in the drawing of Virginia’s Congressional districts in 2010.

According to court documents, the same percentage-based district drawing guidelines were used in both Congressional and House districts.

Voting districts are drawn by the House of Delegates every 10 years. 

The Congressional lawsuit

The lawsuit that asserted gerrymandering and racial bias in districts was heard by a three-judge panel in U.S. District Court.

“A three judge panel of U.S. District Court judges handed down a decision that said, in drawing the Congressional districts that the Virginia General Assembly violated the Voting Rights Act by packing too many African-Americans into one Congressional district…they relied upon race too much,” said Delegate Scott Surovell.

“When they drew the lines in 2010, they packed as many African-American areas into the 3rd Congressional district – which is Bobby Scott’s – and the argument was that by doing that, they were engaging in racial gerrymandering…thereby reducing the impact of [African-American voters] on surrounding districts,” said Keith Scarborough, a member of the Prince William County Electoral Board.

After this initial ruling and appeals, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In recent weeks, the high court ruled on a similar case in Alabama.

“[The Alabama decision said that] when you’re drawing legislative districts, you have to consider multiple factors. And that you can’t rely on simple formulas or simplistic assumptions…they specifically threw out in the Alabama case the use of a percentage,” said Surovell.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the three-judge panel, who reaffirmed their earlier decision.

“[The panel’s] decision reaffirmed the prior decision…[the decision] said that in drawing those districts, Republicans in the House of Delegates used a 55% black voting-aged population threshold… you cannot use a percentage target like that,” Surovell commented.

Now that the districts have been thrown out, the House – under court order – will have until September 1 to redraw the Congressional districts in Virginia.

There are options and appeals that could take place to halt the redistricting, in the coming months.

“As I said in February, the House of Delegates fully intends to exercise its legal right to attempt to remedy any flaw ultimately found by the courts with respect to the current congressional districts. However, we maintain that the defendants should have the opportunity to fully litigate this case. In light of today’s decision, we are evaluating the next steps,” stated Speaker of the House Bill Howell in email.

Will the House districts need to be redrawn?

Shortly after the lawsuit regarding the Congressional districts was filed, a lawsuit for the House of Delegate districts was also filed. This suit too asserts that racial bias was used in drawing the House districts.

According to Surovell, the House lawsuit will likely play out this fall.

“The House Republicans – when they drew the lines for the House of Delegates – they did the same thing. They also aimed for a 55% black voting-aged population threshold through the 14 majority-minority House districts…this means that the House districts are very likely to be thrown out as well,” said Surovell.

Howell stated that the House districts should hold, because they were pre-approved by the U.S. Justice Department.

“The House districts were drawn in accordance with all federal and state law, adopted with bipartisan support after more than a dozen public hearings and committee meetings and pre-approved by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department in accordance with the Voting Rights Act. The bipartisan plan was crafted based on publicly-stated legal criteria, and strongly and publicly supported by a majority of African-American members in the House of Delegates,” said Howell.

Typically, House elections are held every two years. But if the House lawsuit were to have the same outcome, then the General Assembly would be mandated to also redraw House districts.

This would lead to special elections for all 100 delegate seats in 2016, and again an election for the seats in 2017.

Surovell stated that there is precedent for special elections held during federal years – back in 1981, 1982 and 1983.

Bob Gibson, Executive Director for the Sorensen Institute of Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, said a mandate from the courts may not even be necessary to have the House lines redrawn.

“It’s possible because the Governor isn’t going to approve anything – necessarily – that disadvantages his party. So if the [House] were to redraw [Congressional districts], and the Governor finds them unacceptable, there’s no override in the General Assembly. So the possibility of some compromise [with House districts] might be around the corner,” said Gibson.

Redrawing of the lines will be good for competitive politics in Virginia, said Gibson.

“We have gerrymandering where 70, 80, 90% of the districts are not competitive. So, anything that challenges the gerrymandering system is probably good for voters who would like to see some more competitive districts,” said Gibson.

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