While Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell controls the redistricting process in Virginia, plans will be drawn in divided legislative chambers, a Democrat-controlled Senate and a GOP-majority House. UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo
Lawmakers in all 50 states get their chance to redraw legislative and congressional districts, but four -- Virginia, New Jersey, Louisiana and Mississippi -- get early starts thanks to off-year elections.
Each of the four states has a different approach to the decennial exercise.
Virginia legislators will formulate the state's plan during a special session, Roll Call reported. New Jersey's remapping will be handled by a bipartisan commission and divide the process in two so state legislative races are ready by the fall elections. Louisiana legislators must draw lines to factor in a one-seat loss in the U.S. House of Representatives because of population decline. Mississippi could get interesting because Democrats may control the mapping pen but Republican Gov. Haley Barbour wields the veto pen.
The Virginia General Assembly will tackle redrawing congressional and legislative district lines in April, getting a jump on the task because of elections in the fall. While Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell controls the process, plans will be drawn in divided chambers, a Democrat-controlled Senate and a GOP-majority House, Roll Call said.
The census estimates show Virginia's congressional delegation won't change, so the focus shifts to state legislative lines where shifts could help secure Democratic power in the state Senate.
"We're prepared to fight," a Democratic source told Roll Call.
Several state lawmakers told the Richmond Times-Dispatch the final weeks of the legislative session were almost like big Kumbaya sessions, with members of both parties being nice to each other in advance of redistricting work.
"Undergirding everything that happened in the last seven weeks is the very real knowledge that all 140 members have to run in new districts," said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2009. "The work of the next two to four years begins now."
Because it uses a bipartisan commission divided equally between Republicans and Democrats in its redistricting process, New Jersey likely will have few real issues, observers predict. New Jersey officials will redraw state legislative districts by late spring, but realigning its congressional districts likely won't begin until early fall, even as the Garden State reconfigures its lines to match a one-member loss because of population shifts. If squabbling does occur, the commission uses an objective tiebreaker appointed by the state Supreme Court.
But that doesn't mean it's all sweetness and light.
Facing a state constitutionally mandated April 3 deadline, an independent commission is working on redrawing the state legislative district. Once that's completed, the 12-member bipartisan commission will be organized to tackle congressional remapping.
While the two really operate on separate planes, local officials told Roll Call they expect the processes to have similar themes -- such as a battle over "packing" and "cracking" districts that could tilt them one way or the other.
New Jersey Republicans have started to form alliances with local Hispanic groups to try to "pack" large numbers of Hispanic voters into certain legislative districts, creating a diversity imbalance elsewhere that would presumably favor the GOP, several media outlets reported.
The near opposite of packing is "cracking," preferred by Democrats, which would extend minority voters over multiple districts to maximize their influence at the polls.
Some observers say the way districts are drawn prevent real competition, and have been challenging the commission responsible for remapping to create districts that would give each party a fighting chance, NJ.com reported.
"I'm putting it out there as something in the scheme of good government, in the scheme of more public confidence in government, more public participation," Bill Schluter, a former Republican state senator, said during a recent commission hearing in Newark.
More competitive districts would attract more talented candidates, increase public involvement, and force lawmakers to pay more attention to their constituents -- all good things, Schluter said.
At another commission hearing in Camden, Ingrid Reed, a policy analyst who recently retired from the Eagleton Institute of Politics, said typically only three to five legislative races are truly competitive.
"There are probably, at most, two solid stories in the newspaper about what is happening in a district that is not competitive, if we're lucky," she said. "Debates are usually not held in districts that aren't competitive."
Assemblyman Jay Webber, the leader of the Republicans' redistricting team, said he thinks a new map could have more competitive districts, NJ.com said.
"We have to obey the law," Webber cautioned. "After that, we can begin to draw the rest of the districts with other considerations in mind."
Louisiana lawmakers are working against a challenge worthy of Atlas. Besides having to reduce its congressional representation by one, the Pelican State has an election this fall and must satisfy Voting Rights Act requirements to protect minority groups, Roll Call said. And term limits leave a few state-level politicians pondering next steps as they redraw the lines.
A special election last month gave Republicans control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction -- and gave the GOP control of the Legislature and the governor's mansion.
However, the victory may be a Pyrrhic one for Republicans, The Washington Post reported. Because the state loses a congressional seat, it almost certainly will have to be a Republican one that will be assimilated, experts said.
Bob Mann, a Louisiana State University political communications professor and former communications director for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, told the LSU student newspaper, Reveille, he expects this year's redistricting process to be touchy.
"In a perfect world where we weren't losing a seat, this wouldn't be that contentious," Mann said. "The (congressional representatives) would just tell the Legislature, 'Hey look -- this is what everybody wants.' And the Legislature would do it."
Because district boundaries can make or break political aspirations, he said, "you're going to see (congressional representatives) playing big-time politics in the Legislature."
Mann predicted Rep. Jeff Landry, a Republican representing the 3rd Congressional District, probably is the most vulnerable because he's the political newbie and the least funded. A likely scenario would pit Landry against Rep. Charles Boustany in a Republican 7th Congressional District.
Experts told the Post state-level remapping could offer a chance to solidify a Republican majority in both chambers.
Newly elected state Sen. Jonathan Perry, who claimed an open seat to give the Louisiana Senate a Republican majority, said he won't introduce any bills this session because of the short election cycle, instead focusing on the redistricting effort, Politico reported.
"Many people don't realize this only happens once every 10 years," Perry said. "Whatever we do now will have a lasting impact on our state."
Perry said he wants to bring common sense to the process.
"We need to take politics out of redistricting," Perry told Politico. "We need to do what is best for the people."
Lawmakers meet later this month to begin redrawing lines for not only legislative and congressional districts, but also court, public service commission and school districts. The state remapping must be submitted by late April or early May to the Justice Department for pre-clearance. The new state legislative map must be approved by Aug. 29 so candidates can qualify for the ballot in early September.
Redistricting in Mississippi probably won't have a lot of drama despite a Democratic Legislature and Republican executive branch. The state keeps all four of its seats and its plan must get pre-clearance from the Justice Department.
While lawmakers would prefer completing the congressional and legislative redistricting in the same process, they aren't pressured to get them done at the same time, Roll Call said. The Legislature has a committee handling congressional redistricting and the other is overseeing legislative redistricting. Barbour can only veto the congressional redistricting bill because it will be a general bill instead of a joint resolution that will be used to OK legislative remapping.
One Democrat involved in redrawing Mississippi's representative boundaries tried to allay fears of rumored gerrymandering to provide one party an unfair advantage, Y'all Politics said.
"From what I hear, I think both the House and Senate are trying to be fair to Democrats, fair to Republicans, and more importantly fair to the 3 million people of this state," said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, a member of the Senate redistricting committee.
The new state legislative maps will reflect growth in northwest Mississippi, and losses in the Delta and in the eastern-central part of the state, The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger reported.
"Every time you move right or left or up or down you move someone else's district," Rep. Gregory Holloway, a Democrat, said. "Everybody's not going to be satisfied. That's the method to this madness."
Ted Booth, general counsel for the two committees, told Roll Call his state is ahead of the game. Since August, there have been 16 public hearings and lawmakers are hopeful of passing both congressional and legislative redistricting plans during the regular session.