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Va. Senate narrowly passes U.S. House remapping bill

Friday - 1/20/2012, 1:56pm  ET

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - A Republican-backed congressional redistricting plan cleared the Virginia Senate on a party-line vote Friday over Democratic objections that it's unconstitutional and illegally weakens black voting strength.

The Senate passed the measure 20-19. Democratic Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke was absent, eliminating the likelihood of a tie vote that would have been broken by Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

The House of Delegates already has passed the measure, and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has said he will sign it. The bill will require Justice Department clearance under the Voting Rights Act.

Democrats complained that by increasing the proportion of black residents in Virginia's minority-dominant 3rd congressional district, the bill illegally waters down minority influence in adjoining districts. Sen. Donald A. McEachin, D-Henrico, said the Voting Rights Act, passed during the civil rights struggle to combat Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised black voters in the South, clearly prohibits "packing" one district with minorities to dilute minority voting strength elsewhere.

The bill would increase the proportion of black voters in the 3rd District from 56 percent to about 60 percent.

"Sixty percent African-American voting age population is not necessary in the 3rd congressional district to afford minorities the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice," McEachin said.

Sen. Mamie E. Locke of Hampton, author of a Democrat-backed redistricting plan rejected by the Republican-controlled House last year, denounced Del. Rob Bill's bill as an incumbent-protection plan that essentially disenfranchises minority voters in the 1st, 2nd and 4th congressional districts.

Democrats also argued that the bill, which they defeated last year when they controlled the Senate, is invalid because the General Assembly missed its constitutional deadline for passing a redistricting bill in 2011.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said the Virginia Supreme Court has upheld other redistricting plans that were passed later than one year after the once-per-decade census. He also said the bill complies with the Voting Rights Act because it does not reduce minority voting strength in the 3rd, where Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott is in his 10th term.

McEachin attempted to question Obenshain on the Senate floor about why he believes the bill passes muster under the 1965 federal law, but the Republican said he did not want to debate the details. McEachin said it was unfortunate that the chairman of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee and a candidate for higher office would not answer his questions. That drew a rebuke from Bolling, who said the reference to Obenshain's political plans was "inappropriate." Obenshain is exploring a bid for attorney general.

McEachin apologized, but he resumed his criticism after the floor session, saying in a news release that the position Obenshain holds and the one to which he aspires both "require and demand expertise and knowledge of the law. This makes his refusal to even discuss the issue even more egregious."

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