RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Republicans advanced a new legislative map Thursday aimed at fixing an unconstitutional racial gerrymander over the objections of top Democrats.
A House committee voted along party lines to pass a GOP-drawn map that supporters said is "politically neutral" and does not unfairly advantage either major political party.
Republican Del. Chris Jones, who authored the map that passed the committee, predicted it would ultimately pass the full House with bipartisan support. He said it was important for lawmakers to draw a new map themselves instead of letting a court do it. A federal court ruled this summer that the current map is unconstitutional and ordered lawmakers to draw a new map by Oct. 30.
"It should be a legislative fix. We should do this and not allow the courts to do it," Jones said.
But Democrats and liberal activists said the GOP map doesn't solve the problem it's intended to remedy: that the current map illegally packed black voters into 11 districts in order to help Republicans in neighboring districts.
"I am left disappointed by today's party-line vote to pass the majority's partisan map," Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement. "I'm convinced now more than ever that a nonpartisan process is necessary to draw a map that is fair and meets the court's requirements."
Democrats and Republicans have been at odds over what the new map should look like. Republicans blasted a map proposed earlier by Democrats as partisan power grab that unfairly tilts competitive seats in their favor.
Republicans currently hold a 51-49 advantage in the House after Democrats rode a wave of voter unhappiness with President Donald Trump in last year's legislative election and won 15 seats. Jones said his proposed map would have produced a 56-seat Democratic majority based on Northam's vote total last year.
The map passed Thursday now goes to the full House for a vote. It if passes, it will have to then pass the Senate and be signed by Northam to become law and affect next year's legislative elections. The next redistricting is scheduled in 2021, after the next census.
The coming debate could get messy and highlight tensions among Democrats, particularly between African-American and white lawmakers.
Sen. Lionell Spruill, a black Democratic lawmaker who helped Jones draw the map that passed Thursday, said Democrats who oppose the map are willing to dilute the black vote in order to gain a House majority. He said he worked with Jones to make sure that black lawmakers aren't unseated in future elections.
"I want to make sure that 50 years from now there's some black folks in the General Assembly," Spruill said.