Gov. Bob McDonnell's independent advisory panel doesn't have an official say over where the state's political boundaries fall.
But during its final meeting Wednesday, members said the compact, partisan-free options they have laid out for redistricting provide a powerful argument when stacked against the strategic maps drawn by lawmakers.
"We have no power," committee member Gary Baise, a Northern Virginia lawyer, acknowledged. "We have moral suasion."
House Republicans, who hold a strong majority, released maps of 100 reworked districts that largely bolster GOP incumbents. The plan eliminated the district held by Del. Paula Miller, D-Norfolk, and put Del. Robin Abbott, D-Newport News, into the district held by Del. Glenn Oder, R-Newport News.
Senate Democrats released maps they plan to push with their 22 to 18 majority, which consolidate two Virginia Beach Senate districts held by Republicans and entrenches sitting Peninsula Democrats. The Democratic plan drastically reforms the district held by Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment, R-James City, stretching it from Suffolk to the Maryland border.
Senate Republicans quickly released their own plan, which would split Hampton and Newport News into four Senate districts and put Norment and Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, in the same district.
When lawmakers return to Richmond on Monday to debate the new maps they'll have to compete with public options laid in sunlight for the first time. The new maps offer stark contrasts to lawmakers' traditional closed door discussions on the decennial chore of redrawing the state's political lines to account for population changes.
"This is the first time that the voice of Virginians has been heard and put before the governor," said Judy Ford Wason, a panel member and longtime political centrist who backed McDonnell and Mark R. Warner's runs for governor. "From what I read about the House and Senate maps, what we're doing is justified."
The panel produced a 43-page draft report Wednesday and expects to roll out a final version to McDonnell and both chambers of the General Assembly on Friday. The report suggests multiple options for ways to redraw state and congressional districts to make them more compact and satisfy attempts to keep cities and counties whole.
Wason said the panel's efforts coupled with the recent student competition and emerging technology has helped demystify the complex redistricting process. She said other states have a chance to follow that lead because of Virginia's status in the election cycle — all 140 legislative seats are on the ballot in November, while most states won't have elections until 2012.
It's unclear what impact the panel's recommendations will have in Richmond next week considering the maps put forward by House Republicans and Senate Democrats. According to Washington insiders the state's 11-member congressional delegation has already signed off on a deal that would reinforce the eight Republican to three Democrat split produced during the 2010 elections.
Panel members suggested long-term reforms like a more extended process of public comment, more hearings and more transparency. Committee member Sean O'Brien said the real change is likely to come during Virginia's 2021 redraw.
"I feel like we're laying the groundwork, the foundation for 10 years from now," O'Brien said. "So that we're not in a position of having public hearings in four days."
Former Virginia Commonwealth University professor Bob Holsworth served as the committee chairman. Holsworth said that the work of the commission is to ultimately help the public understand the complex game of redistricting.
"Let's make politics understandable," he said. "Why should it be so mysterious?"
Check out proposed maps
The proposed maps offered up by House Republicans and the competing proposals put forward by Senate Democrats and Republicans are available at the Virginia redistricting website — http://www.redistricting.dls.virginia.gov/2010.
The site includes detailed demographic information about the proposed changes and also recent election results for comparison.
The House and Senate Privileges and Elections Committees will hold the following public hearings on redistricting proposals:
Thursday – 7 p.m. – Hampton, Hampton University Student Center Ballroom
Monday – 10 a.m. – Richmond, House Room D, General Assembly Building