Hampton Roads Area Residents Detail Gerrymandering to Commission
A determined group of speakers showed up with maps and details July 20 to describe to five members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission how their communities had been divided up and their legislative and congressional districts redrawn for political purposes in previous rounds of redistricting.
Thirteen persons spoke in-person at Old Dominion University in Norfolk and another three participated virtually. While some had different points of emphasis, almost all of them called for the commission to start its work “from scratch” and to strive to respect jurisdictional boundaries and areas with shared interests as much as they could.
The second of the commission’s four in-person public hearings was led by Democratic Co-Chair Greta Harris of Richmond, and attended by Democratic citizen member Brandon Hutchins of Virginia Beach and Republican citizen member Richard Harrell of South Boston. Also attending were Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) and Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church), who arrived late, apologizing to a sympathetic audience that “neither tunnel was a good option this morning.” Although the commission has sought to have balanced partisan representation at all of its hearing, no Republican legislator participated in person. (Video recordings of the hearings are archived for later review by the public and other commissioners.)
Several speakers urged the commission to hold more of its hearings and meetings outside of regular business hours so that more people would be able to attend. Two speakers made a point of saying that they were speaking on behalf of others who could not attend because they had to work. Another said she had been unable to monitor the commission’s business, but had taken time off from her job to participate. Harris acknowledged the problem, and said that the commission had tried to schedule its hearings at different times of the day to accommodate different schedules.
At the start of the hearing, Harris asserted that commission members were there to “listen to the citizens of the Commonwealth.” She explained that the commissioners would not be taking questions or engaging in debate. She added that they were particularly interested in hearing about considerations that the commission should take into account, including information about “communities of interest.” But she stressed that “all comments will be heard.” She reminded those present or watching online that “map drawing begins in less than 30 days.”
At the start of the livestream of the commission’s first in-person hearing the week before, Harris’s remarks and those of two speakers could not be heard by remote participants, but that was not an issue this time. While it was difficult for persons listening online to hear the comments of persons who participated virtually, Simon assured listeners that the commissioners in the room were able to hear those comments.
Harris did respond to the question of one participant, who said she did not have comments but wanted to know more about the commission’s process for drawing the maps and receiving public input on them. Harris explained that the commission would hold another round of hearings in September, and referred the speaker to the commission’s website for more details.
At the commission’s first in-person hearing in Farmville, a group of residents from Lynchburg had urged members to reunite their city into a single district. The second hearing, designated for the Hampton Roads area, heard from residents from a wider range of localities, armed with specifics and sometimes maps, to describe the incongruities of the districts where they lived.
Among the specific issues highlighted at the hearing:
- Judith Brown, a Norfolk resident speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters of South Hampton Roads, urged the commission to follow jurisdictional boundaries as much as it could because the economies and nature of Virginia Beach, Suffolk, and Chesapeake were very different from Norfolk and Portsmouth. Portsmouth, she noted had been chopped into two House districts and three Senate districts. She urged the commission to avoid using “the confusing maps we have now.”
- Kari Buchanan of Norfolk described how that city had been divided up into too many districts through multiple rounds of redistricting. (In one case, a mere three precincts of the city were put in a separate district with other jurisdictions.) Most recently, she said, the special master who redrew legislative districts following a successful lawsuit that challenged racial gerrymandering, had tried, she said to address the issues by making the fewest number of changes. Consequently, she urged the commission to “start from scratch,” to hire a professional mapmaker, and to ignore the addresses of legislators. She highlighted the problem of dealing with the Eastern Shore, which does not have a large enough population to make up its own districts, but has little in common with the contiguous Hampton Roads area. She said, “The Eastern Shore deserves good representation, but so does the part of Norfolk where I live.”
- Another speaker, who represented Charles West, the Libertarian candidate running in House District 91, said that district had been split in the past “for political reasons,” and requested that the commission “not lose sight of the goal of representation” for the sake of “convenient politics.”
- Carolyn Caywood, a resident of Virginia Beach, described the kinds of environmental and climatic issues her city faces to make the case that the city should not be divided. She noted that every district in which she lives had been redrawn in recent years, and urged the commission to disregard the boundaries of existing districts, particularly those that were drawn as the result of a court order.
- Melanie Cornelisse from Chesapeake, the Democratic candidate running for House District 78, noted that her opponent had not had to face opposition since 2013, and that the district is “far more white and homogeneous” than Chesapeake as a whole. The minority population of Chesapeake, she contended, had been portioned out to five other districts, weakening its impact on the outcome.
- Janet Ross, a resident of James City County, urged the commission to keep her county together, and to try to unite it with Williamsburg, because they share many government services. She detailed how the jurisdictions have been split up differently, depending which legislative body was involved. It was, she concluded, “really kind of screwy. I don’t know of anything more important than for us to have fair elections and to have fair districts.”
- A resident of Smithfield, “that gem on the South Side,” described how that city was taken out of Isle of Wight County and “put on the North Side” when a special master redrew district boundaries following a successful lawsuit. He suggested that by doing that, his own “community of interest” had not been respected. He asked the commission to redistrict “with common sense” and to “maintain contiguous government jurisdictions as much as you can.” He praised legislators who “act as Virginians first,” rather than as partisans.
- Vickie Williams, vice chair of the national Delta Sigma Theta sorority for the state of Virginia, expressed concern that Hampton had been broken up into too many districts, which “dilutes the voices of minorities.” Too many people, she said, had had “fingers in the pot.” They need, she said, “to take their fingers out of the pot and focus on our problems.”
- Diana Howard displayed maps showing House District 81, the oddly shaped district in which she lives, and then the narrow sliver of the district where her home was located in the Ocean Lakes Homeowners Association. She said she hoped that the commission agreed that “this is not congruent, this is not the way a district should look.” Del. McQuinn, recognizing the odd shape of the district and how to fix it, joked that “if we get rid of that, we lose ‘the young lady sitting in the chair.’” Howard noted that the district’s lines were so finely drawn that a petitioner seeking signatures to get on the ballot to represent that district had discovered that about half of the signatures she had obtained in the neighborhood were not in the right district.
Ofelia Wattley of Norfolk drew a vivid cooking image in her testimony. She said she “enjoyed finely prepared dishes” and one of the things that “makes these dishes so rich are finely chopped ingredients.” But she said, that’s “good for dishes, but not so much for cities.” The five cities of southern Hampton Roads, she said, “are chopped finely, but unfortunately, too minutely for my liking.” When communities are not kept together, she asserted, it “keeps citizens from voting confidently. Too many questions arise that interfere with achieving the intent of our vote.” She said that it also made it difficult for citizens to know who represented them.
Caywood began her remarks by noting that she had applied to be a commission member, and told the commissioners, “you have my sympathy,” because they had had to make a time commitment that no one had anticipated eight months ago. “I honor your dedication to the task.”
Caywood urged the commission to develop a better portal for accepting citizen input, and to consider scheduling statewide hearings to hear from statewide organizations about issues that impact the whole state.
At the hearing, Harris said that persons who agreed with previous speakers could simply state their name and where they were from, and say that they endorsed what a speaker had said. One speaker, Dr. Richard Brown, decided to do just that, saying he supported the remarks of Wattley and Caywood.
Three more persons participated virtually, one asking whether the commission would be able to accept “community of interest” maps that citizens are preparing themselves. Harris said the commission would be able to do so through its website.
At the end, Harris thanked everyone “who came to share your thoughts, ideas and your love for this country and this democracy. With each passing week, we are starting to feel the weight that has been given to us. . .to lift up our democracy.” She asked those attending or listening for their “prayers and best wishes” and encouraged them to attend other hearings.
The commission’s next hearing is at 10 am. on July 22, a virtual hearing designated for the “Eastern Region,” followed by its next in-person hearing, at 4 p.m. on July 27, designated for the Northern Region. Full details are available on the commission’s website.