Redistricting Commission Takes Steps Toward Fleshing Out Plans

The Virginia Redistricting Commission held its third official meeting April 12, taking some more steps toward fleshing out its plans and procedures going forward.

The commission has scheduled its next meetings, all on Mondays from 10 a.m. to noon, for April 26, May 10 and May 24. The agenda of the next meeting is scheduled to include a presentation on “Redistricting 101,” and the Division of Legislative Services staff indicated that that presentation might be pre-recorded to help make more efficient use of the commission’s meeting times. A scheduled presentation for the latest meeting, covering Robert’s Rules of Order, talking to the media and talking with the general public, was shared with the commissioners in a pre-taped video.

Presentation slides said that the Virginia Code did not permit commission members, staff or consultants to “individually engage with interested citizens or groups regarding the redistricting process outside of formal public meetings or hearings.” The protocol, it said, “ensures full transparency and accountability, and the integrity of our process.” Co-Chair Greta Harris noted that the DLS staff had drafted suggested email messages for commissioners to use when responding to the public so that they would stay within the rules and promote transparency.

DLS staff member Julie Smith described planned improvements for the commission’s website, but did not provide a timeline by which the improvements would be completed. Smith said that in the future, interested persons will be able to subscribe to be notified when redistricting-related updates are made. In addition, the website will seek to address Frequently Asked Questions about redistricting, and include links to pertinent Virginia laws. More information will be provided about commission members as well as how to contact them.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, expressed concern that the current website was “buried within the DLS structure.” Smith said that DLS’s web developer was working to create a separate site for the commission’s business.

Harris raised the need for website information to be translated into other languages, an issue that several advocacy groups have highlighted. In response, Smith said DLS would get an estimate of those costs. She said it “was not as straightforward as I had hoped.”

Erin Corbett, redistricting coordinator for the Virginia Citizens Engagement Table (VCET), also urged the commission to hire an American Sign Language interpreter and to make use of captioning services for its meetings.

Hovering over the discussions were concerns about the commission’s budget and how its available funds would be spent. DLS Director Amigo Wade explained that the commission’s appropriation for two fiscal years (July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2022) totaled $2.139 million. Of that amount $404,327 has already been spent. The General Assembly signed a $220,000 contract for redistricting software and support from Citygate LLC before passage of the constitutional amendment that created the new commission. DLS has spent $23,811 “on specialized computer equipment, a server and a back-up server,” and the five judges on the Virginia Redistricting Selection Committee spent $160,516 on print and digital advertising to promote the citizen application process.

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, noted that the commission would likely need “two sets of attorneys” and other consultants to support its work, including a “racial voting bloc analyst” to help the commission prepare maps that would avoid court challenges.

Citizen member Sean Kumar said it would be useful to have “an assessment of gaps and needs by the staff and commission” of “the kinds of help we are going to need.” Kumar said he was not sure the commission would need “two sets of attorneys.” At a previous meeting, it was observed that legal experts are usually identified with a particular political party. Hiring two sets of lawyers, Kumar said, “will be open to debate. I view it as incredibly costly.” Kumar said it was also possible that state resources could be identified to support the commission’s work.

Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko, who led the meeting, and Wade said the DLS staff was working on a menu of options and what they were likely to cost for the commission to consider at a future meeting.

The commission then discussed ideas for publicizing its meetings and its work. Wade commented that based on what had already been spent, “you can see that print and digital advertising can be expensive.” Citizen members volunteered suggestions for using Division of Motor Vehicle offices, courthouses, libraries, mass transit facilities, covid-19 vaccination sites and social media platforms to save money. Del. Delores McQuin, D-Richmond, suggested making use of faith communities to help reach Black citizens.

Simon said he had heard some “dissatisfaction” that the commission’s timetable did not anticipate holding public hearings before the U.S. Census data became available in August. “Since we have more time, can we use it to have more public hearings?” he asked. Babichenko said some commission members had expressed willingness to participate in more public hearings, and said the DLS staff would work on determining the commissioners’ availability for that.

Noting that 32 people had registered to make public comments, the commission set aside the last hour of its meeting to make time for the commenters to each have two minutes, giving priority to persons who had not previously appeared before the commission. However, there was apparently confusion over accessing the meeting and registering to speak, as only nine persons actually wanted to make comments, most of them persons connected with the League of Women Voters or other groups that have been monitoring the process closely.

Kyle Barnes, executive director of Representable.org, led off the commenters, saying that his organization, affiliated with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, was eager to help the commission, particularly in working with citizens and community organizations to help identify communities of interest, a new redistricting criteria. Barnes echoed the view that the Census delays “provide an opportunity to provide a portal for differing abilities and languages.”

Liz White, executive director of OneVirginia2021, also offered her organization’s support to help the commission connect with subject matter experts in Virginia and around the country. Corin Reade urged the commission to partner with the League, VCET and other groups that have worked to reach out to previously unengaged voters to better leverage their networks. She also urged the commission to seek the help of other states, such as Michigan, that have created independent redistricting commissions.

Fran Larkins of the Fredericksburg League of Women Voters encouraged the commissioners to schedule more public hearings to ensure that the concerns of those parts of the state that were not represented on the commission would have a chance to get their concerns aired. Larkins noted that the California Redistricting Commission had held more than 30 public hearings in that state.

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for April 26. Video recordings of its meetings and related materials are here. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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