Redistricting Commission Organizes Subcommittees to Move Forward

The Virginia Redistricting Commission April 26 organized itself into two subcommittees to delve more deeply into its work and began to discuss some of the larger issues it will face in the year ahead.  

Before the start of the meeting, the commissioners were able to view a 25-minute video presentation, “Redistricting 101,” prepared by the Division of Legislative Services staff. It covered pertinent federal and state legislation and court precedents, details of the information that the U.S. Census Bureau will provide, and more specifics about the software and computer resources that have been acquired to support the commission’s work. The presentation can be viewed here

At the end of the presentation, DLS attorney Meg Lamb explained that the General Assembly’s Joint Reapportionment Committee was still responsible for managing the census data, but was no longer controlled redistricting. However, she explained that last October, when the committee was still in charge and “when this decision needed to be made,” it voted to include the addresses of incumbent legislators in the redistricting base maps. Lamb noted that “using incumbent addresses to avoid incumbent pairing,” that is, forcing two or more incumbents to run against each other, “is an accepted factor to consider in redistricting.” She said it was a criteria that had been adopted in previous cycles, “but we can certainly revisit the issue if you all would like.” 

When Co-chair Greta Harris asked if there were questions about the presentation, Democratic citizen member Sean Kumar said he wanted to have a better understanding of the legal constraints on how the commission would approach its work and whether it would merely tweak existing boundaries or start “from scratch.” Kumar noted that the use of incumbent addresses was an issue the commission would face.  

Lamb agreed that the commission would face “some tough questions,” such as what level of population deviation would be acceptable between legislative districts and how much attention would be given to preserving “communities of interest,” a new redistricting criteria 

Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) said Kumar had identified something that was “critical to this whole process.” Barker said the commission would need to start with the requirements of the Virginia Constitution, and then consider the Virginia code, and “then come up with what we want to do,” which could include new considerations. Barker noted that there are “clearly things we have to pay attention to as we pass through the process.” The General Assembly, he added, had passed a criteria bill that was “more specific than in the past.”  

“The challenge we have is to be doing what we’re supposed to be doing because otherwise it’s going to end up in court somewhere,” Barker concluded.  

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) noted that legislators were no longer permitted to come up with the starting point for the maps. Referencing the college competition that was held at the start of the 2011 redistricting process, Simon mused that it might be a good idea to solicit draft maps from the public. He said he had been wondering about the same question Kumar had raised, and was trying “to be as transparent as possible.”  

Kumar then observed that it might be a good idea for the commission to agree on its priorities before it started drawing maps or received the census data. “It’s not going to be an easy road,” he acknowledged, “but it might be worth doing.” 

Harris agreed that that approach would help to “depoliticize” the process, and make it “purer.” She recommended proceeding with the commission’s planned training sessions on map-drawing and its map-making tools, which would take it through May. She said the commission would then be in “a better position to talk about the values and policies we want to adhere to as the data start coming in.”  

To facilitate the commission’s work, Harris announced that it would initially organize into two subcommittees, co-chaired by citizen members, and evenly divided between legislator and citizen members and between the two parties. After she announced proposed subcommittee assignments, no one objected. 

The Budget and Finance Subcommittee will be co-chaired by Republican Marvin Gilliam of Bristol and Democrat Kumar of Alexandria. It will focus on developing the commission’s budget and administering a procurement process for hiring necessary consultants, including lawyers. The other members will be Democrat Harris, Republican Mackenzie Babichenko of Mechanicsville, Simon and Barker, and Sen. Stephen Newman (R-Lynchburg) and Del. Margaret Ransone (R-Westmoreland). 

The Citizen Engagement Subcommittee will be co-chaired by Democrat James Abrenio of Fairfax and Republican Richard Harrell of South Boston. It will develop plans for advertising the commission’s meetings and public hearings, improving the commission’s website and conducting public hearings. The other members will be Democrat Brandon Hutchins of Virginia Beach, Republican Jose Feliciano of Fredericksburg, Del. Les Adams (R-Chatham), Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), and Del. Delores McQuin (D-Richmond.)  

Subcommittee meetings will be announced in advance and opened to the public. After some discussion, the consensus was that a subcommittee should have a quorum of three citizen members and three legislator members to make a recommendation to the full commission, but could meet with a fewer number of members if necessary to facilitate its work. Subcommittee members will be free to attend meetings of the other subcommittee, but will not be able to vote. Harris said she and fellow Co-Chair Babichenko were recommending that subcommittees accept written comments, but not verbal ones. She said members of the public would be free to come to a full commission meeting if they wanted to comment in person on the subcommittee’s work. Harris stressed that they were committed to transparency, and could adjust that if necessary.  

During the public comment period, Chris De Rosa, co-chair of the Redistricting Issue Group of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, encouraged commission members to attend the League’s April 29 forum on redistricting. Both she and Erin Corbett, speaking on behalf of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, encouraged members to respond to public commenters during their meetings and to engage in more discussion among themselves about issues that commenters had raised.  

Harris asked the DLS staff whether commission members could respond to comments, considering the “guardrails” of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  

DLS interim director Amigo Wade said that it was expected that public interaction would take place in the context of future designated public hearings. Lamb asked the legislators for their input on how legislators interact with the public at the General Assembly’s committee hearings. Simon responded that he thought it was worth distinguishing between public comments and public hearings and that a “cross-examination” should be avoided. He suggested that it might be best to adopt a policy at the start, but to let the chair deviate from that rule at her prerogative. He said he viewed it as more of a management issue than a FOIA restriction.  

Democratic Commissioner  Hutchins said that he had hoped to be able to draw on the expertise of other community members, but that the presentation on FOIA that the commission had received had “made me think I couldn’t talk about it.” He asked if there was any prohibition on attending forums, such as the League’s.  

Lamb said commissioners could attend such discussions, but cautioned them to “consider what your role is” and to not engage with the public outside of a commission meeting.  

Harris agreed that “we do want to leverage experts in the field who have been thinking deeply about redistricting.” She said that “thinking how we can do this in a transparent way is important.” She said she hoped the Citizen Engagement Subcommittee would bring back ideas.  

During the public comments, Ken Chasen, who described himself as an IT expert from Charlottesville, proposed adopting a “hub-and-spoke” approach to drawing Virginia’s 11 congressional districts with its 25 most populated counties at the center. Another commenter, Stephen Martin, called on the commission to draw districts that were as compact as possible, and to try to follow political jurisdictions as closely as possible. He said that “as a general matter, people’s communities of interest will be preserved” that way, as they will share the same services, such as schools and police. He added that having been involved in litigation over redistricting, he was pleased to see the commission moving forward. 

The commission’s next meeting will be Monday May 10 at 10 a.m. It is expected to include a briefing on the mechanics of redistricting. Details will be made available here. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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