Virginia Redistricting Commission Launches New Website

The Virginia Redistricting Commission launched a new website May 24 with an easier-to-remember URL and a mechanism through which citizens can provide their e-mail addresses to receive regular communications from the commission.

At a meeting of the full commission, Amigo Wade, director of the Division of Legislative Services, said that visitors to the commission’s old web address, nested within the DLS’s web pages, would now be redirected to Democratic Co-chair Greta Harris, who was presiding at the meeting, responded, “I love that. It makes it much easier to find our body of work.”

The co-chairs of the commission’s subcommittees reported on their recent meetings, but did not call on the full commission to resolve any issues that arose during their deliberations. James Abrenio, the Democratic co-chair of the Citizen Engagement Subcommittee, said his subcommittee would be reviewing guidelines that the Michigan Redistricting Commission developed for public input at its meetings, but no mention was made of their discussion of the Michigan commission’s portal, which makes use of tools to sort, categorize and display comments and community of interest maps developed by members of the public

Abrenio reported that the subcommittee had discussed clarifying the deadline for posting written comments to the commission before a meeting. (The deadline for requesting to speak at a full commission meeting is 10 a.m. the day before.) Written comments sent to the commission by at least three individual members of the League of Women Voters of Virginia in the days before the most recent meeting were not posted before the start of the meeting.

Richard Harrell, the subcommittee’s Republican co-chair, detailed the $250,000 the Citizen Engagement Subcommittee had voted to request for its outreach, noting that it represented only 12 percent of the commission’s overall budget. Harrell said the subcommittee envisioned holding four in-person public hearings before the Census data was received, and four more after the maps were initially drawn but before they were submitted to the General Assembly. It was anticipated that four commissioners would attend each hearing, but that each commissioner would only have to attend two of the eight sessions, one before and one after the maps were drawn. The commission anticipates an equal mix of party representatives and citizen and legislators at each hearing, with members able to attend the sessions closest to their homes. Wade said DLS would soon share a proposed schedule of the hearings, which would likely start in July.

Sean Kumar, the Democratic co-chair of the Budget and Finance Subcommittee, said his group had had “a very robust discussion,” but that some decisions had to be made about processes before the subcommittee could propose the kind of outside support the commission will need. Kumar said the subcommitee’s legislative members offered to review what their caucuses had spent on hiring lawyers in the 2010 redistricting cycle. But he added that some subcommittee members had questioned whether there should be “a fundamentally different process this year” because of passage of the constitutional amendment. The issue of whether the commission would hire two sets of counsel, one affiliated with each party, was left unresolved.

Harris and Mackenzie Babichenko, the commission’s Republican co-chair, reported on their meeting in Richmond on May 21 to test-drive the mapping software that has been acquired for the commission. Babichenko said she found the process “tedious, but doable,” but acknowledged that not every commission member would likely enjoy doing it. “But,” she added, “I don’t think everyone needs to be a line drawer.” Babichenko said the commission might want to form “bi-partisan pairs,” with one member serving as a line drawer and one advising, possibly with support from a “professional line drawer.” Harris acknowledged that she was probably “in the opposite camp” as Babichenko, and would very much recommend hiring professional support.

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) asked whether some of the tedium was because the co-chairs were starting from scratch, and mused whether that could be addressed by using a proposal from an “expert” or existing districts as a starting point. He observed that he thought the latter was the preference of Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax), but Barker said he was willing to start with either a “blank sheet” or existing maps.  But Harris said that even starting with existing districts was tedious because as she clicked to add census blocks to a district, the tabulations of population and racial make-up would continually change, telling a user whether they were getting closer or “colder.”

Barker said he would be interested in helping to draw maps, and suggested that commission members could choose to divide up the three sets of maps the commission would need to draw among them.

Harris encouraged interested commission members to form bipartisan teams to travel to Richmond over the next few weeks to  receive training on the software from the DLS staff.

The commission spent the first hour of its meeting listening to a presentation by James Whitehorne, chief of the Census Redistricting and Voting Rights Data Office. The public’s ability to hear all of Whitehorne’s presentation was marred by the disruption of the commission’s livestream feed, but the recording, like those of all commission meetings, will be posted on the new website. (Whitehorne’s PowerPoint presentation is available by clicking here.)

Barker asked Whitehorne to explain why the Census Bureau was not providing the Virginia data earlier than the rest of the states, as it has done in the past because of Virginia’s early legislative elections. Whitehorne explained that because of the delays caused by Covid-19, the Census Bureau had to focus first on apportioning congressional seats, and that it would have slowed down the issuance of redistricting data for every state if it had had to deal with those with early deadlines first. He said that because of the unusual delays this year, there were now 26 states that faced challenges with their schedules, not just the four with off-year legislative elections like Virginia.

Sen. Steven Newman (R-Forest) asked Whitehorne whether he had any concerns about the ability of the major software vendors to incorporate the late-breaking Census data, and whether glitches could result. Whitehorne responded that most of the major vendors had been working with the Census data for more than two decades, as well as “practice data” this year. He expressed confidence that they would have no problems.

Harris asked whether the 45-day window that the constitutional amendment provided for drawing the maps started when the August data were released or when the final Census data was released by September 30. Barker replied that it was “his understanding” that the August date would apply. He added that that date “will still give us a “fair amount of time.”

Whitehorne also explained that some Census blocks do not contain any people because the whole country has to be divided into blocks and there are some areas, such as Interstate highways, rivers and airport runways, for example, where no people reside. Whitehorne noted that these zero-population blocks can often be useful in connecting similar communities for redistricting purposes. But he added that the Census Bureau had eliminated many of these in this round of its work; he and Barker noted that in the past, rivers had sometimes been misused for this purpose.

Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) said she might want to ask further questions about the treatment of prison institutions. Legislation passed last year requires that incarcerated persons who live in another part of Virginia be assigned to the district of their permanent homes, not the district where the prison is located. McQuinn said she had heard from many of her colleagues on the issue and wanted to explore it more. Wade said both the DLS staff and Whitehorne could provide additional help, if necessary.

Three members of the public who had previously made in-person comments appeared again. During her comments, Erin Corbett, redistricting coordinator for the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, asked Barker to clarify statements he had made during the meeting about the boundaries that would be used for this year’s House of Delegate elections. Harris called on Barker to respond to Corbett; he explained that the new districts could not be drawn by the June 8 primary, requiring legislators to run in their current districts. But new boundaries would be prepared for future elections before the date of the November elections. The exchange marked the first time a commissioner had interacted with a member of the public during one of its meetings; during the last meeting of the Citizen Engagement Subcommittee, it discussed developing guidelines for possible interaction between citizens and commission members at future public hearings. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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