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Redistricting Challenge May Affect County

Although Northern Virginia districts may not have to be substantially redrawn should the districts outlined last year by the Republican-controlled House of Delegates be found to be unconstitutional, they might still be affected.

If the Virginia Supreme Court upholds the ruling, voters will return to the polls in November to select their representatives in redrawn House of Delegates districts.

"When you get to the process of drawing districts, it's like putting your hand on a balloon," said Del. Robert Hull (D-38). The air displaced at one end of the balloon will affect the other end. Likewise, redrawing districts elsewhere in the state may have repercussions on districts in the area, say some Northern Virginia delegates.

But even if the districts are nearly identical, there is no guarantee that the outcome in each district will be the same.

ON MARCH 11, Salem Circuit Court Judge Richard Pattisall ruled that the 2001 redistricting plan violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by packing minorities in certain districts and of creating voting districts that were not compact and contiguous, thereby violating the voting integrity of certain "communities of interest." Many of the districts mentioned in the ruling were in the Newport News-Norfolk area.

The judge ordered that those districts be redrawn in order to "abide by all the requirements of the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Virginia."

While Pattisall found that racial gerrymandering had taken place in Southern Virginia districts, he rejected the claim by plaintiffs that it had also played a part in drawing lines of 49th district, covering Arlington, Alexandria and parts of Fairfax.

The plaintiffs charged that the new 49th district pulled together Hispanic voters, creating a "Hispanic district" and diluting Hispanics' voting power in other districts, according to Hull, who was one of the plaintiffs.

Pattisall ruled that the 49th district had been created to empower Hispanic voters, rather than diminish their voting power.

Pattisall found "an intention by both Democrats and Republicans to try to empower Hispanic voters," said Hull.

FORMER 37TH DISTRICT delegate John Rust, who helped draw the new map, defended the 2001 redistricting plan.

"The Justice Department required the state to make the same number of districts in which black voters were the majority," he said. However, he added, that is increasingly difficult as the black population "has become more dispersed." Rust and his colleagues had to "expand those districts in order to maintain the majority-minority balance," he said.

Rust, who lost to Democrat Chap Petersen, rejects the allegations that minority voters have been packed in certain districts.

"Black voters are less concentrated in the 2001 plan than they were in the 1991 plan," he said noting that majority-minority districts now have an average 56 percent minority voters as opposed to 60 percent in 1991.

PACKING MINORITY VOTERS into certain districts, however, isn't the only problem with the 2001 plan, some delegates say. In some cases, splitting minority voters into two districts is equally problematic.

For instance, when the residents of Gum Springs in Mt. Vernon went to the polls last November, they elected not one, but two delegates to the General Assembly. For the first time, the historic black community of Gum Springs, founded by George Washington's freed slaves, was split into two voting districts.

"I used to have all of Gum Springs," said Del. Kristin Amundson (D-44). "The community is very upset about that.... It was done to make my district more Republican."

A similar situation occurred with the historically black James Lee community, which sits astride Fairfax County and the City of Falls Church. The Falls Church section of the James Lee community "was taken away and given to Del. Jim Scott (D-53)," said Del. Robert Hull (D-38) who used to represent that area.

"The redistricting plan of last year split communities of interest."

WHETHER NEW ELECTIONS are possible is another area of disagreement.

Del. Karen Darner (D-49), a plaintiff in the suit, said "a little tweaking" might take place in local districts as a result of another round of redistricting.

Del. Vincent Callahan Jr. (R-34) said he didn't think there would be enough time between June and November to redraw the map, have it approved and schedule campaigns.

"It's getting to the point where it is logistically impossible," he said. He added that he expected the Supreme Court to rule out Pattisall's ruling which he called "blatantly partisan" and "disgraceful."

Darner, however, said that new elections would be possible.

"I anticipate we'll have an election," she said. "We may have a very shortened race. ... We may end up with primaries in October."