VIRGINIA

New U.S. House map racing through GOP-ruled Va. Assembly

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That, McClellan said, amounts to packing, or minimizing the number of seats minority candidates can win by grouping minority neighborhoods into one district.

Democrats say it violates the federal Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965 in response to Jim Crow laws and other efforts to suppress black votes, particularly in former Confederate states.

"Redistricting is something that needs to be done right because we have a history in Virginia of not doing the right thing for nefarious reasons," she said in the Capitol that was once the seat of Confederate government and home base for "Massive Resistance," Virginia's institutionalized defiance of federal court orders to desegregate public schools.

In a rival plan offered by Senate Democrats last year, the black percentage of Scott's 3rd District would drop to 44 percent - which would leave the district still winnable for the popular 11-term congressman - while the black population for adjacent 4th District would increase to 54 percent.

That would provide Virginia with a majority-minority district and a "minority influence" district.

Bell, however, countered that the federal law is clear and unambiguous in mandating that black voting strength not be diluted, and argued that his bill heeds the letter and spirit of the law by bolstering the minority population of Scott's district.

His position not only enjoys the support of Republicans, who rule more than two-thirds of the House, but some black Democrats, including Del. Kenneth Alexander of Norfolk.

"If you drop that district to something like 40 percent (black), you may get another Democrat elected, but that Democrat might not be an African-American," Alexander said. "I can't see losing what you've got now with the one district for the chance to go for two."

The Democratic plan might work as long as Scott stays in office, Alexander said.

"But take Bobby out of the equation. Then what about a candidate Kenny Alexander or a candidate Jennifer McClellan?" he said.

Del. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, questioned the breakneck pace of Bell's bill through a GOP legislature, and noted that it took Democrats unaware. "What's the rush," he said.

The bill not only has to clear the General Assembly and get McDonnell's signature, it then must be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice for compliance with the Voting Rights Act and be ready in time for candidates to qualify for the U.S. House primaries in June.

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