By Amanda Iacone
Virginia Statehouse News
RICHMOND — Gov. Bob McDonnell on Friday vetoed a bill that created new voting district maps for the House and Senate.
McDonnell, a Republican, focused his criticism of the bill on the portion drawn by Senate Democrats. In a letter to lawmakers, McDonnell said the Senate map was not compact, did not do enough to balance populations among districts and lacked the same bipartisan support seen in the House.
Lawmakers weren’t scheduled to come back to Richmond until April 25. But because of the veto, the House will return Monday. It is unclear if the Senate also will return next week, but Democrats have vowed to overturn the veto and adopt the very same map.
“Governor McDonnell is clearly playing politics by vetoing this bill. We followed the same criteria that Republicans used to draw maps 10 years ago,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said in a written statement. “The only thing the governor will accept is absolute surrender on the part of the Democrats of the Senate of Virginia, and he’s not going to get it.”
McDonnell referenced the work and recommendations of his own independent bipartisan commission in his veto letter. But he did not recommend that the Senate adopt the commission’s map.
Legislators have been working on drawing maps for state House and Senate districts that reflect population shifts and changes shown in 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the governor, said McDonnell wants to give the Senate the chance to rectify the problems in the plan and to develop a map with Republican input that Republicans also could support.
McDonnell noted that the proposed Senate map is less compact than the current district lines. He also said the Senate plan increases the number of localities that are split compared to the current map.
“A plain visual examination of the districts in the Senate plan also places into serious doubt that the compactness and communities of interest requirements have been met,” McDonnell said in his letter.
McDonnell said the Senate plan also deviates from the one-person, one-vote standard and seems to under populate districts with slow population growth while overpopulating fast growing districts.
Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford counties saw some of the largest growth in the state during the past decade. Virginia Beach and portions of southwestern Virginia did not grow. Those growth patterns generally would trigger more districts in northern Virginia and reduce representation in the southern third of the state.
McDonnell said the House plan was passed with bi-artisan support, but the Senate plan was approved along a straight party line vote.
“I am concerned that the Senate plan is the kind of partisan gerrymandering that Virginians have asked that we leave in the past,” he wrote. “Certainly, the Senate can create a plan that will be supported by a bipartisan majority of Senators, especially with the Senate’s overwhelming support for a bipartisan redistricting process.”
Senate Republicans proposed an alternative map that was rejected.
The governor also encouraged the Republican-led House to strengthen its plan.
According to an analysis by Quentin Kidd, a professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, all of the Senate districts have less than 2 percent deviation in population. And the average deviation was slightly more than 1 percent. All of the House districts had less than 1 percent deviation.
Kidd and Dustin Cable, the resident policy associate at the Demographics & Workforce Group of the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia, also said the Senate map would split city and county lines 135 times, more than the current district map, which has 110 splits.
But the Senate map proposal does not unfairly under populate certain areas or overpopulate others as the governor alleged, Cable said.
The governor’s veto came as somewhat of a surprise to legislators and even political watchers, said Isaac Wood, communications director for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Lawmakers likely don’t have the votes to overturn the veto and now lawmakers have to decide what to do next and what the governor would consider to be an acceptable map, Wood said.
“The governor’s decision seems to be coming off more as a power play,” Wood said. “Perhaps (Republicans) think they can get a better plan than they did in the first round.”
There was general agreement that the Republican-led House would support the Democrat’s Senate plan and vice versa. And most Democrats in the House voted for the bill. Now Republicans are hammering the Democrats for the lack of similar bipartisan support in the Senate, Woods said.
“We’re in a brave new world. We’ve never had split control like this for redistricting here in Virginia,” Wood said.
But unlike other bills that are killed by the governor, there is no other law to fall back on. New maps have to be drawn and soon, because legislative primaries are scheduled for August, the plans will have to be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice, he said.
Some sort of compromise will have to be struck, Wood said.
A group of faith, civic and business organizations pushing for bipartisan redistricting cheered the governor’s veto. But the groups called for McDonnell to work with legislators to craft a better plan.
“Though the governor puts most of his emphasis on the Senate plan, the House plan is also flawed. This opportunity shouldn’t be used as a political end run to create delays or gain partisan advantage,” said C. Douglas Smith, director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and chairman of the Virginia Redistricting Coalition in a written statement.