New Redistricting Plan Split Communities in Mount Vernon

New Redistricting Plan Split Communities in Mount Vernon

Court-ordered redrawing might —or might not— fix the problem.

While the court challenge to recently redrawn districts for the General Assembly didn’t specifically mention Mount Vernon, black voters were split into two different districts.

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 along Sherwood Hall Lane for the state house race. Instead of being part of the 44th District, some voters found themselves voting in the 45th District.

“THERE’S A STRONG BLACK voting population right here," said Queenie Cox, co-chair of the Mt. Vernon Council of Citizens' Associations. "We keep each other informed. … How can we band together as a community when we have two different representatives and we live across the street from each other?"

According to Ron Chase, president of the Gum Springs Historical Society, the community is "in jeopardy with what's going on with the redistricting. .. Splitting the community in half is another element that is going to lend to the demise of the community."

"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."

BUT REDRAWING the lines might not solve those problems.

“There was not a primary effort to maintain communities of interest. Many districts were made much more complex,” said Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-45).

“Any complaints about how things were done up here may not be addressed [by drawing a new map of the districts.]”

It would make good sense to give Gum Springs in its entirety back to Amundson," Van Landingham said.

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 in the event new elections are held.

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 in question be redrawn in order to "abide by all the requirements of the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Virginia."

Republicans vowed to challenge the decision at the Virginia Supreme Court. The court could hear the case by "June at the earliest," according to Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R).

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 majority-minority voters in 1991.

"THE JUDGE'S RULING was that it did have a community of interest so it is not one that was specifically called out to be redrawn because of any racial or gender discrimination," said Del. Karen Darner (D-49), another plaintiff in the suit. Darner added, however, that "a little tweaking" might take place in local districts as a result of another round of redistricting in the areas mentioned by the judge.

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."