The Virginia Supreme Court has appointed two special masters nominated by either political party to redraw Virginia’s electoral maps within a 30-day deadline after an independent state commission deadlocked over a redistricting plan.
A special master is someone appointed by a court to carry out some sort of action on its behalf, in this case to make new state legislative and congressional district maps using newly available census data. While Virginia will continue to have 11 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, population shifts within the state mean the boundaries will have to move.
Electoral district boundaries are generally decided by state legislatures, but some delegate the task to other bodies. In Virginia, state voters approved an amendment to the state constitution last year empowering the Virginia Redistricting Commission to do it.
But this year, the 16-member commission got bogged down in partisan disagreements and was unable to finalize a redistricting plan, and so responsibility for the maps fell to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The court appointed RealClearPolitics senior elections analyst Sean Trende and University of California–Irvine political science professor Bernard Grofman as electoral cartographers, according to an order signed Nov. 19 by Virginia Chief Justice Donald Lemons.
The special masters “shall be neutral and shall not act as advocates or representatives of any political party,” the court order states.
“By accepting their appointment, the Special Masters warrant that they have no ‘conflicts of interest’ … that preclude them from prudently exercising independent judgment, dispassionately following the Court’s instructions, or objectively applying the governing decision-making criteria.”
Trende was nominated by Republican lawmakers; Grofman, nominated by Democrats, has previously served as a redistricting special master in Virginia.
Trende, who previously practiced law, is also a nonresident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank in the nation’s capital.
The Democratic Party of Virginia objected Nov. 19 to Trende’s association with what it termed “a right-wing news organization” that ran a column of his a year ago that contained the subheading: “Without any extreme gerrymandering, reapportionment and redistricting alone will likely cost Democrats their majority,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The article with the subheading ran in National Review on Nov. 13, 2020, but was a reprint of a column that first appeared at RealClearPolitics without the subheading.
In 2015, Grofman redrew the state’s congressional districts, and in 2018, he redrew the Virginia House of Delegates districts. His 2015 map drew Republican ire for transforming the 4th District from a Republican stronghold to a Democratic-leaning district that’s currently represented by U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, a Democrat, according to the Times-Dispatch.
State Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, a Democrat, wrote a letter to the court on Nov. 17 pushing back against Republican criticism of Democratic nominees for special master and arguing that there was no “plausible basis to disqualify any” of the Democrats’ nominees, and that all 3 of the men were “highly qualified, nationally respected, impartial experts.”
Grofman has been recognized by the courts as “one of the world’s leading experts in the study of redistricting and voting rights,” he wrote, citing a 2020 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
The other two of the Democrats’ nominees who didn’t make the final cut, Nathaniel Persily and Bruce Cain, are also recognized as experts, Saslaw wrote.
In the U.S. Congress, Virginia is currently represented in the Senate by two Democrats and in the House by seven Democrats and four Republicans. In the 2020 presidential election, Democrat Joe Biden won the state’s 13 electoral votes, beating incumbent Republican Donald Trump 54.1 percent to 44 percent, according to official results.
In the election on Nov. 2, 2020, Republicans wrested control of the offices of Virginia governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general from Democrats. While the GOP also regained control of the Virginia House of Delegates, the Senate, which wasn’t up for election in 2021, remains under the control of Democrats.