Redistricting Commission Steps Up Pace of Work on Key Decisions

The Virginia Redistricting Commission stepped up the pace of its work at its May 10 meeting, setting a more aggressive schedule of subcommittee meetings in the month of May to make key decisions regarding its budget and procurements and  plans for managing citizen outreach and  public input.

Under the new timetable, the commission’s Citizen Engagement Subcommittee will meet first, on Monday May 17 at 2 p.m., to help provide guidance to the Budget and Finance Subcommittee, which will hold its first meeting on Wednesday May 19 at 2 p.m. The Citizen Engagement Subcommittee scheduled additional meetings on May 20 at 10 a.m. and Wednesday May 26 at 10 a.m. Budget and Finance plans additional meetings on Tuesday May 25 at 10 a.m. and Thursday May 27 at 10 a.m. The full commission still plans to meet on Monday May 24 at 10 a.m., when it is scheduled to receive a presentation on the 2020 census.

Like the commission, the subcommittees are co-chaired by citizen members and evenly divided between parties, between citizens and legislators and between members of the chambers of the General Assembly.  Meetings will all be open to the public and other commissioners, but only subcommittee members can vote on recommendations to the full commission.

The subcommittees’ deliberations will likely be guided by an overview the commissioners received at their latest meeting by Brooks Braun, a Division of Legislative Services member, who analyzed the budget and operations of the country’s 11 citizen-led redistricting commissions. Braun said that DLS hoped to “provide you with some context so you’re not groping in the dark.” The materials Braun prepared and assembled were posted at the meeting and have been added to the Materials document available here. 

Braun noted that Virginia’s commission was the only one with both legislator and citizen members. Of the states with citizen-led commissions, he noted that Virginia was “probably most like Colorado, Michigan and Washington,” in terms of size, and might be closest demographically to Washington in terms of its diversity  and its mix of industries.

In reviewing the budgets of other commissions, Braun noted that some of the differences related to the size of the state—bigger states tend to have bigger budgets. But he added that some states had been able to accomplish quite a lot with their budgets. He encouraged the commissioners to ask “what do we like and is that feasible for Virginia?” In terms of hiring outside staff, he said that each state had prioritized its particular needs and hired accordingly.

Braun observed that the commissions also had differing needs for hiring legal counsel, depending on the extent of the litigation the commission faced and whether it had to defend its maps. In Arizona, where partisan warfare broke out over the past decade, the commission spent $2 million on legal fees, or, as Braun noted, “our entire budget.” Because the Virginia commission’s maps must be approved by the General Assembly, or by the Virginia Supreme Court if that fails, Braun said it was not clear who would be the body that would have to defend them in any potential lawsuit.

Braun also summarized audits and best practice reviews that Arizona and California conducted after the 2011 redistricting cycle. He also suggested that the commission could draw from RFPs and statements of work that other commissions had prepared for hiring consultants and lawyers. “We could work smartly,” he said, “by using their work.”

In response to a question from Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) on how Virginia’s timeline compared to that of other states, Braun noted that the California commission suggested starting every process early. “The best time to hire someone was a month ago,” he said, “and the next best time is today.” Braun said that despite the additional time that the commission will have because of delays in receiving the U.S. Census data, the process will “still be very hectic.” Simon observed that he was “not sure how we would have done it” without that delay. None of the other states with independent commissions faces legislative elections, as Virginia does, the same year it receives the census data.

That sense of urgency also was expressed in a discussion about the commission’s use of its map-making software. Julie Smith of the DLS had prerecorded a demonstration of the software; in answer to a question from Simon, Smith said communities of interest could be drawn in, using the program’s smaller divisions. Simon noted that there are software programs in which criteria can be specified in advance and then the program itself draws the districts. Smith said she could talk with the software’s developer to “see what options are available.” Last year, before voters approved the constitutional amendment creating the commission, a contract was signed with Citygate GIS for the software package the commission is using.

Before the close of the meeting, Simon asked the DLS staff about whether the commission could use data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) to get an early start on map drawing. DLS attorney Meg Lamb said state law requires the official census data to be used for all levels of redistricting in the state, and that the population of congressional districts has to be very exact. She also noted that that ACS data is not available at the level of census blocks.

But James Abrenio, a Democratic citizen member from Fairfax, asked whether the commission could try and draw preliminary maps based on its criteria, using those early estimates. Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) also noted that the commission could “take a dry run” using the ACS estimates. Lamb acknowledged that the 2010 census data could also be used by commissioners who wanted to start practicing. It was not clear whether commissioners would be able to work with the software online and from their own computers; the vendor, it was noted, had recommended that the software be accessed from dedicated computers.

Four persons registered to make public comments at the meeting.

Dolores Dwyer, who described herself as a resident of rural southern Albemarle County, referenced the Redistricting 101 presentation that was prepared for the commissioners at the previous meeting and stressed that while incumbent legislators’ addresses had been built into the commission’s mapping software, there was no statutory requirement that those addresses had to be considered when the maps were drawn. Dwyer said that making use of the addresses “smacks of the backroom,” and that the “maps belong to the voters,” not legislators.

Liz White, executive director of OneVirginia2021, encouraged the commissioners to watch a webinar program, Redistricting Deep Dive, that her organization is co-sponsoring on May 12 with the League of Women Voters of Virginia and other redistricting reform groups. More details are here.

Erin Corbett, speaking on behalf of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, invited commissioners to take advantage of her coalition’s mapping tutorials that are held every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. Click here for details.  

Ken Chasin, an IT specialist from Charlottesville, appeared again and spoke about an approach to map drawing that he has also outlined in written comments.

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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