“Double Header” for Commissioners as They Prepare for Census Release

Scheduling the Tuesday August 3 Virginia Redistricting Commission meeting proved difficult as legislator members were also called to be at the Special Session of the General Assembly which began Monday.  In addition, the in-person public hearing for the “Central Region” was scheduled for 6 p.m. to follow the commission meeting.  A flip in times to move the meeting after the hearing allowed the commissioners to move ahead with organizing for the August 16 release of census data.

The evening began with updates on the building of the commission’s “consultancy team”– hiring of legal counsel, the communications and outreach consultant, a racially polarized voting (RPV) analyst, and the search for map drawers. The commission then moved forward with consideration of a work plan and schedule for after the census data arrives; proposed guidelines and prioritization of criteria; and the legal counsel recommendation to not “start from scratch.” There was also a “robust dialogue” on the make-up of subcommittees assigned to work on the maps.

Co-chair Greta Harris, who chaired the evening meeting, acknowledged the public comments about the importance of moving quickly to hire a communications and outreach consultant.  Brooks Braun of the Division of Legislative Services (DLS) reported that they would be meeting tomorrow (Wednesday) to negotiate a contract.

Harris further announced that the legal counsels have been hired – two Democratic leaning firms working together,  J. Gerald Hebert and Crimcard Consulting Services, and two Republican leaning firms, Schaerr Jaffe and Taylor English.  The two co-chairs (Harris and Mackenzie Babichenko) have met with the firms several times, and said all have extensive redistricting experience around the country and are very well balanced.  Harris explained, “Before we had to shuffle things around, we were hoping to have representatives from legal counsel with us.  Because we weren’t sure what time or even if this full commission meeting was going to happen today, we asked them not to make the drive here.”

The four legal teams have made several recommendations, including hiring a racially polarized voting analyst (RPV), Professor Max Palmer of Boston University, to ensure the commission is  staying within the spirit and requirements of the Voting Rights Act.  The co-chairs also asked legal counsel to identify nonpartisan map drawers that have capacity to help with drawing the state House and Senate lines.  (There will be more time and internal capacity with DLS available to work on the Congressional lines.)  Co-chair Babichenko added, “We are having both counsel look into the possibility of finding a nonpartisan person and a vote tonight would be premature until we know the answer to that question.”

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) asked what the problem was with using DLS staff to help draw Congressional maps. Babichenko said they had reached out to DLS, but that the staff member would be unable to do everything in the allotted time. She said DLS needs  more assistance, and they were seeking at least two people to assist on these maps.

Harris emphasized, “All four legal counsel strongly encouraged the commission to gain map drawing expertise.”  Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria) reminded commission members that he had been involved in drawing maps for the Senate in 2011 and said it was important to have map drawers who understand Virginia. He added that commission members must be heavily involved in drawing the maps with support from map drawers.  Harris assured him that the law firms have been asked to find a nonpartisan person who knows Virginia to work in partnership with commission members. “They are not doing that on their own.” 

Citizen commissioner Brandon Hutchins of Virginia Beach asked, “When we get the maps back, are the commissioners going to be able to share that with citizens?” Harris replied, “Yes.  One of our tenets is transparency.”

Harris then outlined a “rough” version of a work plan for the commission that would  involve creating two new subcommittees of eight commissioners each–one subcommittee to work on House maps and the other on Senate maps.  The intention is for them to again be balanced between Republicans and Democrats, citizens and legislators, senators and delegates. The co-chairs also recommended that commissioners pair in twos to become content experts for two regions, so everyone doesn’t have to become a  content expert for the whole state. The subcommittees would then work with these “experts” to “tell the map drawers what we want to see.” 

Babichenko further explained the maps would be further taken to the weekly full meetings so that everyone, including the public, can comment.  The communications consultant will upload maps and sort emails, documents and recommended maps from citizens by the eight Virginia regions. A flurry of public hearings will be held in late September.

Right now, full commission meetings are scheduled every other Monday but after the census data arrives, members will meet every week in September as a full commission.  The subcommittees will set their own schedules. Harris said the plan is to finalize the subcommittees and pairings at the meeting on August 16 and be off and running on August 30.  She said other ideas were welcomed. 

Several commissioners expressed concern that the commission needs to be moving more quickly.  Citizen commissioner Richard Harrell of South Boston pointed out that “Running won’t get you very far when you have only a half a month.  Instead of “hitting the ground running by August 30 why don’t we hit the ground running on August 23?”  Sen. Barker and Sen. Steve Newman (R-Forest) also urged they commission begin moving forward  with map drawing by August 23.

Sen. Barker warned that having two commissioners working on two regions has the “potential for complicating things. Better to let the subcommittees figure out how best to work this out. Two regions aren’t always going to match up.”  Sen. Newman agreed and said, “It will take all eight commissioners working in concert for an entire state. Can’t do it in a silo.”  Del. Simon added, “These regions don’t have the same number of districts.” 

Del. Simon expressed hope they could avoid having senators drawing the Senate districts and  House delegates drawing the House districts as it gives a perception of “inside baseball.”  Harris then shared a draft of subcommittee assignments and discussion ensued.  The proposal was for the House Districts Subcommittee to include Sens, Newman and Barker, Del. Margaret Ransone, Del. Delores McQuinn, and citizens Virginia Trost-Thornton, Jose Feliciano, Sean Kumar and Co-chair  Harris.  The Senate maps would be drafted by a subcommittee composed of Sen. Ryan McDougle, Sen. Mamie Locke, Del. Les Adams, Del. Simon, and citizens  Harrell, James Abrenio, Brandon Hutchins, and co-chair Babichenko. 

The issue of subcommittee assignments was revisited later in the Commission meeting at the request of Del. Adams.  Co-chair Harris assured him, “It is all balanced.  Citizens would be concerned if not.”

Sen. Newman warned, “You need to have the Senate looking at the Senate.  There are about seven ways this whole thing can fail.  Senate members know the body, and pulling people away from a delicate balance would be making a big mistake.  George knows the Senate better than anyone and chances of getting it through the eye of the needle are more difficult.”

Harris responded, “It can also fail if we aren’t leading with our values and prioritized criteria. We didn’t have a referendum to do the same thing we did in the past.”  She was supported by citizen commissioners Kumar and Abrenio and Del. Simon, who said he “strenuously objected to just Senators working on Senate maps.”  They pointed out that the full commission will have to vote on the maps and there will also  be input from both chambers on both maps.  Kumar added, “If the maps fail because of politics, it will be seen.  We owe it to the Commonwealth to do it the right way first, at least try.  If it fails, we will know why.  We shouldn’t start with an assumption that because of the ways to fail we shouldn’t try the right way first.”

Sen. Barker urged, “We need to make sure there is full vetting with the whole committee.  We want something that works for everyone and need an appropriate balance between Democrats and Republicans.”  Harris added, “A citizen member balance is important because some of you have done this multiple times before.”

Citizen commissioner Abrenio said he felt the decision was being made very quickly. He said he wanted to be sure there was time for more public input and feedback, and added that “we need to get more meetings on the schedule. The plan sounds thought-out but I’d like to see it in writing so it can be considered.”  Citizen Kumar, attending virtually, agreed with Abrenio.  He said he appreciated what the co-chairs had tried to do but had concerns that there will be less daylight if they break into subcommittees and that legislators will have more influence.  “Citizens are telling us, ‘we don’t want the old system.’” He again raised the suggestion that Moon Duchin of Tufts University be hired to work in concurrence. Co-chair Harris said, “The hope is that the subcommittees’ work will be transparent and we will have nonpartisan map drawers responding to the desires of commission members.  We will be guiding map drawers in a public manner.  Eight members means there are less schedules to align.” 

 Harris then suggested transitioning to discussing the “2021 Proposed Redistricting Guidelines and Criteria,” which were drafted with legal counsel.  She said, “We set up principles and priorities as to how we want maps drawn and then could get more granular.”   Del.  Adams asked, “Which legal counsel?”  and Harris responded that the document was the consensus of all four firms.

Harris then said, “At risk of having things thrown at me, the firms also recommended we not start the maps from scratch.  This doesn’t mean we can’t make sweeping changes to district lines but given time constraints, we need to start with the district lines and make changes big and small.” 

When citizen member Hutchins asked “Why?”, co-chair Babichenko replied, “All four firms said this is the way to go.”  Because of the change in the meeting schedule, the law firms weren’t present to explain their reasoning, but it was explained that commissioners could submit questions to the counsel and answers would be made available before the next meeting.  Abrenio said, “Hearing from them in person is absolutely necessary.  We all deserve to have face-to-face discussion. We need to schedule another meeting to hear from them.”

Del. Simon and Sen. Barker then raised concerns that the criteria in the document looked to be paraphrased and didn’t reference the sections of the Virginia Code section regarding standards and criteria that were adopted last year.   Del. McQuinn suggested using the actual language but including the summary underneath. Sen. Newman said it is “not all encompassing but provides the hierarchy and avoids the minutiae.”  Co-chair Harris acknowledged the legislators’ concerns: “When we draw the maps, we will not be able to meet all the criteria. Some will be more closely met than others.  Counsel were asked to summarize and prioritize to help with the tough decisions.” Harris further explained that they were trying to simplify for ease of understanding and transparency, but would review again with an eye to the concerns that were raised. 

Harris acknowledged that a lot of information had just been proposed, but said that there was time for clarification and review because a vote would not be held until August 16. She said, however, that by that date the commission would need to know how to organize itself and move forward.  however, they will need to know how to organize and move forward.

In summary, Harris said they clearly won’t do “pairings”, but would work with counsel to revise draft guidelines. She said that at the next meeting, the commission would vote  on the mixed subcommittee assignments, discuss whether or not to start from scratch on district boundaries, and consider hiring the nonpartisan map drawer to be recommended by counsel.  Sen. Barker recommended having the RPV analyst start looking at data and opportunities for minority representation districts to get the process started before August 16.  He also suggested another decision point–an acceptable “population variance” before the data arrives.

There was additional discussion on options for quickly scheduling another meeting so the legal counsel could be questioned.  There was also clarification that commission meetings must now be in-person and the requirement for a quorum is five persons for the eight member subcommittees.  Three additional subcommittee members could attend virtually once the quorum is met.

Citizen commissioner Harrell urged, “We all signed up to do what’s necessary.  We knew at the beginning it was going to be 45 days.  Just suck it up.”  Del. Simon asked for longer meetings held less frequently and Sen. Barker suggested they need larger blocks of time.  Sen. McDougle asked that meetings not be four hours in the middle of the day but broken up into morning or afternoon sessions.  Co-chairs Harris and Babichenko pleaded with the Commissioners to respond quickly to Doodle surveys setting meeting times.

Before the meeting adjourned, two citizens offered public comments, both addressing the surprise announcement that the legal firms had recommended using current maps as a starting point for redistricting.  Fran Larkins from Fredericksburg questioned why the lawyers don’t want to start from scratch.  Rolf Breun of Fredericksburg voiced his concern that “they shouldn’t assume every district should correspond to an existing district. It will be easier to meet the criteria if not bringing in past baggage, especially for the House of Delegates.”

The next full meeting of the Commission is currently scheduled for Monday, August 16 in Richmond.

–Fran Larkins, LWV-Fredericksburg

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