Sunny Day for Virginia Redistricting!

Despite the early hour, many members of the public answered the call to show up and  “speak up” at the August 23 meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission.  Bolstered by even more comments and emails to the Commission website, their presence was acknowledged by commissioners who spoke strongly of the need to pay attention to “what the people want.”

The 8 a.m. in-person meeting began with an introduction to the map drawers recommended by the Republican and Democratic legal counsels.  Mathematician Moon Duchin of Tufts University was introduced as a third possible consultant to both sides.  Citizen commissioner James Abrenio asked for and received a commitment from the map drawers to be objective and serve the Commission as a whole, not individual parties.

Presiding Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko then called for a vote on the starting point for map drawing. The map drawers affirmed that starting from scratch would make no difference in meeting the timeline. Citizen commissioner Sean Kumar then pointed to the “overwhelming desire of the public to start from scratch” and moved to “direct the map drawers to start from a clean slate without regard to previous maps.”  The motion was seconded by citizen commissioner Brandon Hutchins.  Despite a substitute motion from Sen. George Barker to use both existing maps and maps from scratch, the four Democratic citizen members defended Kumar’s motion forcefully and the vote for starting from a clean slate passed on a bipartisan vote 12 – 4.

The Commission Co-chairs Babichenko and Greta Harris then reaffirmed the importance of transparency as the redistricting process moved forward.  There would be no behind the scenes partisan discussions with the legal counsels and map drawers.  Some “fundamental” disagreement was expressed by legislative members, but the Co-chairs emphasized that because “this is being done as the Committee of the Whole, we have to ensure all commissioners receive all information at the same time.”  The protocol will be that questions are asked and answered only through the Co-chairs or in public at a meeting.

There was a brief discussion of the video capability for the commissioners and the public as proposed maps are considered.  Meg Lamb of the Division of Legislative Services assured the commissioners “the technical people will be able to do this.” 

After 9 members of the public spoke, the Commission went into closed session for an update by legal counsel on a lawsuit filed against the Commission over plans to count prisoners at their last known address instead of the prisons where they’re incarcerated.


Map Drawers –

 The first item on the agenda was the introduction of the map drawers that the Republican and Democratic legal counsels will each bring on board.  Attorney Bryan Tyson (R) introduced John Morgan who has worked in the last three redistricting cycles, including with Del. Chris Jones in the 2011 redistricting of the House of Delegates.  (Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) later expressed concern that the Republican map drawer is a “gerrymandering mastermind” based on 2011 experience and it looks like “we are adopting an adversarial approach.”) 

Attorney Gerry Hebert (D) then introduced CEO Ken Strasma of HastaqDNA (pronounced “haystack”), the firm retained by the Democratic counsels.  Hebert was present in person for the first time at a Commission meeting and mentioned this is his sixth decade of redistricting starting in the 70s.  Hebert’s experience covered 21 years in the voting rights section of the U.S. Justice Department including as acting chief.  Since 1994, he has been in solo practice focused on voting rights and redistricting.

Hebert also introduced Moon Duchin of the MGGG Lab of Tufts University, a strictly non-partisan group who told the Commission that she is willing to serve as a consultant to both sides.  Her group would use cutting edge mathematics and computing to “operationalize” the defined criteria.  Republican counsel Tyson indicated he had received Duchin’s information yesterday and briefly spoke this morning with Democratic colleagues.  They would like to get a better understanding of what is being proposed.

Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko who was presiding said both map drawers will be directed to get together and prepare a draft of things they agree on, what they don’t agree on, and come back to the Commission.  Del. Simon began further questioning of the map drawers by asking both sides why they identify as Republican or Democratic map drawers.  Co-chair Greta Harris (attending virtually) said she would like Moon Duchin to answer the same question about neutrality and how her lab can help the Commission.

Counsel Tyson(R) responded that John Morgan is working for several commissions, not just partisan entities, and doesn’t think the Republicans have a hugely different way of looking at it.  Morgan elaborated further that he is currently working with the Michigan independent commission partnering with a Democratic firm.  He expects to be working for the attorneys as directed with guidelines provided by the Commission.  Ken Strasma (D) of HastaqDNZ, speaking remotely, said he has experience with both sides and worked with the bipartisan team in California with an “independent lens.”  He expects to take direction from the Democratic law firm and develop the best plan to meet the criteria and provide documentation.  He had concerns about tasking map drawers to develop a consensus map as that “has potential for gamesmanship.”  He will look to the Commission and counsel on how to proceed and what to prioritize. Duchin, also speaking remotely, said her team’s work is neutral without partisan aims.  They try to take criteria away from the “eye of the beholder” and develop quantitative measures.  “Once you agree on how to measure splitting or compactness, they can develop maps based on those criteria for starting points; use mathematics and computing to adjudicate the process.  This would not necessarily be adversarial but involve contributions from both sides.” Hebert and Tyson both agreed the legal counsels’ relationship has been very cooperative so far and they look forward to continuing in that same spirit of cooperation with the map drawers.

Sean Kumar agreed with Del. Simon about fairness vs partisanship. “Everything we’ve talked about this morning is partisanship.  Another layer is looking out for the people.  A lot of people want to be less partisan, but can’t be due to gerrymandering and they voted for a different process.  We keep hearing about Democrats and Republicans but there is a way forward that looks more at the people. Both Democrats and Republicans have an interest in protecting incumbents but that’s not what the people want.”

Co-chair Harris, speaking virtually, reiterated what Kumar said.  “For many of us citizen members the whole goal and desire to serve was to lift up shared democratic principles of fairness in the redistricting process.  I was not in favor of separate counsels or map drawers, but this is where we find ourselves.  I am thrilled that Ms Duchin is on the call.  Some may not see her as neutral, but I do.  Her lab works to strip out the partisan nature prevalent in redistricting and let the numbers talk for themselves based on the criteria the commission puts forward.  More conversation is needed on criteria, but I would be thrilled, and citizens would be happy if we could strip the politics out.  Our work is for the citizens of Virginia, not for the political parties.”

Citizen commissioner James Abrenio commented, “We’re at a historic moment. Let’s ask the map drawers from both sides to make a commitment to the Commission as a whole, not to individual parties, to be as objective as you can be.”  Strasma (D) responded, “We are pleased to make that commitment and excited that Virginia has this new process.  The criteria are fairly well spelled out. There may be a disagreement on how those are prioritized or what map best meets those, but the map drawer’s job is to work at the direction of the Commission.”  Morgan (R) added, “I commit to working with the Commission, no problem.  I’m happy to work with all members of the Commission as directed.  I have done that in the past.  It just happens that I come here through the Republican counsel, but I’m happy to work with everyone.”

Co-chair Babichenko then moved forward to the next item on the agenda – the starting point for map drawing. Kumar asked to hear from the map drawers whether they are capable of starting from scratch as the public has requested.  Both Ken Strasma (D) and John Morgan (R) said it would make no difference in meeting the timeline. 

Kumar said, “since there is no timeline concern and there is an overwhelming desire of the public to start from scratch,” I move to start from a clean slate without regard to previous maps.”  The motion was seconded by citizen commissioner Brandon Hutchins.  Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria) then made a substitute motion to use both approaches – existing maps and maps from scratch so the two can be compared and we can benefit from both.”  Sen. Steve Newman (R – Forest) seconded Barker’s substitute motion, once again using his “land the plane” analogy about getting maps that can pass the General Assembly.  (As an “aside”, Newman mentioned he probably won’t run for re-election.)

Abrenio responded, “I’m a little confused by Newman’s logic. The Commission voted to use political data   rather than redrawing maps because of time. He is now proposing to use two separate frameworks. I’m also interested in ‘landing the plane’ but the best way to do that is to come together as a Commission to propose fair maps.  If the General Assembly then doesn’t approve them, there should be political consequences.” Kumar also countered, “This discredits the process and the Commission to say that the General Assembly has always done this and the only way we’ll get approval is to provide something the General Assembly would do anyway.  That is not what people voted for.  Why are we not doing what the people want? Not enough people are looking out for the citizens. There are 140 incumbents and 8.5 million Virginians.  Two-thirds of those voted to approve this process. If we go back to the old way, it is making a mockery of the process.”

Moon Duchin of Tufts inserted “I understand the sentiments well. A blank map and old map are not the only starting points. This is a false dichotomy. Many others can be provided by a neutral process which can be completed in a timely way.”  When Sen. Newman interrupted Duchin and questioned whether it was appropriate for her to speak at that time, Co-chair Harris specifically asked to hear from Duchin, saying “We are desperate for guidance on how to do this process fairly and correctly.” 

Citizen commissioner Hutchins commented further. “When I signed up for this role, I intended to do the work of the people.  What I have heard is ‘to start a map from scratch.’  This is not negotiable. It is what the citizens have asked for.”

Co-chair Babichenko then called for a vote on the substitute motion for two maps, existing districts and “from scratch.”  That motion failed 7 – 9.  Voting YES:  Feliciano, Trost-Thornton, Harrell, Adams, Newman, Ransone, and Barker.  Voting NO:  Abrenio, Hutchins, Kumar, McDougle, Locke, McQuinn, Simon, Harris, and Babichenko.

The original motion to direct map drawers to start from a clean slate without regard to previous maps, which had been made by Kumar and seconded by Hutchins, was then voted on.  It passed 12 – 4.  Voting YES:  Abrenio, Hutchins, Kumar, Locke, McQuinn, Feliciano, Harrell, McDougle, Ransone, Simon, Harris, and Babichenko.  Voting NO:  Trost-Thornton, Adams, Newman, and Barker.

A closed session to receive counsel updates on a lawsuit was on the agenda at that point, but, at the suggestion of Del. McQuinn, a motion for closed session by Sen. Newman was withdrawn until after public comments.

Commission Protocols and Transparency –

Co-chair Babichenko then turned to consideration of Commission protocols.  “We have two map drawers and potentially a third party to assist.:  “Co-chair Harris and I have discussed that we want map drawers to look at the criteria and create something for us.  They are not to negotiate.  They should decide where they can agree and make notes about what is political to bring to the Commission for a decision.  At the next August 30 meeting they can present draft maps, the RPV analysis, and we can discuss decision points presented by the map drawers.  The iterative process will then start with the Commission providing feedback and the map drawers coming back each week.”

Co-chair Harris, attending virtually, stated, “Since the Commission has voted that we would be doing this as the Committee of the Whole, we thought it would be helpful to ensure all commissioners receive all information at the same time.  What we would prefer doing is that individual members would only ask questions of the map drawers and legal counsel at public meetings; not talk with legal counsel or map drawers individually.”  Babichenko added, “this would also provide the ability for individual commissioners to develop ideas on paper and Julie with DLS could assist.”

Sen. Newman “fundamentally” disagreed with their direction. “I think that some of us can sit down with the software and do it ourselves.  I appreciate the perspective but tend to think it would be more helpful to make tools available to the individual commissioners.”

Citizen commissioner Kumar asked if the map drawers will work together to come up with one set of maps.  Babichenko responded affirmatively and Kumar questioned whether the map drawers have been decided on formally.  “I had previously questioned whether the individual caucuses would pay for legal counsel out of their own funds.  Now we have taxpayer money going to individual members so they can achieve whatever they want not in daylight. If we all wanted to talk individually to counsels, we could blow the budget in one month. All communication should go through DLS or at public meetings.  No individual commissioners should be ‘meddling’ with the process.  The process the co-chairs have laid out makes sense.”  Abrenio agreed with Kumar and advocated for a public process of working through the map making.  He also expressed concern that the citizen members would have less influence with legal counsel and the map drawers than the legislators.

Del. Simon supported the policy in general for transparency rather than the fiscal issue. “I guess the concern I have is that when we come to meetings some of the questions are ‘pre-cooked’ and the answers are known. It appears some decisions have been made behind the scenes.”  He supports the process proposed by Harris but would like more clarity as to whether they will have a “vote every time a line is moved on the map.”

Sen. Les Adams (R-Chatham) voiced concerns about the practicality of restricting members’ ability to speak to counsel and that some questions could be answered with a phone call. “All decisions are transparent but in terms of work being done individual members should be able to communicate as needed within the bounds of public meetings law. It seems like an artificial restriction and that will be problematic.”

Co-chair Harris responded, “When the referendum passed to create a commission, what we heard from citizens overwhelmingly was they wanted fairness in the redistricting process.  We have a multitude of legal and map drawing capacity.  What we don’t want is partisan strategizing from either side on how the maps will be drawn.  If any member has a question, we must do it in the sunlight.  Either bring the question to the co-chairs so we can ask counsel and get information back to all members or ask questions in a public meeting.  We have already talked with DLS staff and if any commissioner wants to work out any area of the state, they can work with Julie and bring that map back to the whole Commission.  We want citizens as well as all Commission members to get all the information at the same time.  In the past, Democratic and Republican legislators were paying for their own counsel.  This time the taxpayers are paying, and we owe it to the citizens to be as transparent as possible.”

Citizen commissioner Harrell commented, “When the process was first explained, we were told we would be able to ask individual questions to counsel or map drawers and the responses would be made available to the entire commission.  The co-chairs were elected to make the process work, but individual commission members should be able to convey directly a question through counsel to map drawers and that info would be available to the rest of the commission. That’s how it was explained originally.”

Harris responded to Harrell that she thinks we are saying the same thing. “Any commissioner can ask any question to our vendors, but you can’t do it in the shadows; ask at a public meeting.”  When Harrell questioned Harris’ reference to “in the shadows,” Harris said that since the two counsels were secured, some individual members have had conversations with counsel that the full commission was not aware of.  “This must stop.  Any commissioner can ask any question, but it must be in public, where all can hear the question and answer.”

Kumar added, “Commissioners can also submit questions through staff or the co-chairs, not just at meetings. I respect the authority of the co-chairs.  This is a lot of information to manage.  If 16 commissioners are asking questions, it could be redundant.  It’s better to channel through the co-chairs or staff and make sure everyone knows what’s being discussed.”

Abrenio understood Harrell’s concern but whether it goes to the co-chairs or not is up to the co-chairs.  “It’s important to understand that anyone can ask a question, but all need to hear the question and answer.  They are trying to avoid any appearance of impropriety and maintain public confidence.”

Harris affirmed, “This is a protocol, and the co-chairs have the ability to put protocol in place.  This discussion is to make sure all commissioners understand how we are going to operate going forward.  It is not up for a motion; this is guidance on how we want to operate.”  Co-chair Babichenko offered to revisit when we get the first set of maps if it’s not working. 

Del. Simon asked counsel, “Do you understand how to deal with ‘rogue calls”?  Counsel Hebert (D) responded, “When I get a call from Sen. Newman, I must give that to the co-chairs for dissemination to the rest of the Commission.  Counsel Tyson (R) agreed with Hebert.  “We can abide by that and keep the co-chairs in the loop when we get calls from Commission members.”  Co-chair Babichenko finalized the discussion by saying “It’s been decided initially as the way we’ll operate.”

Co-chair Harris announced that the “Redistricting Guidelines and Criteria” have been updated based on the Commission’s last meeting. “I’ve heard from map drawers that there are several other layers of definitions around compactness they may need guidance on.  In consideration of time, perhaps the map drawers can write up a series of questions for the Commission.”  Republican counsel Tyson suggested that, “Until we get into map drawing, it may be too early for a list of questions.”   Hebert, Democratic counsel, said, “the map drawers will review the criteria but thinks questions from map drawers should be addressed as soon as possible before any lines are considered.”  Babichenko added, “It’s an ongoing process and we can make adjustments.”

Harris then asked DLS about video capability when there are proposed maps to consider.  “Can digital maps be presented to the Commission and the public so we can see what the proposed maps look like when they are being discussed?” Meg Lamb of DLS reassured the commissioners that “the technical people will be able to do this.”

Citizen commissioner Kumar then asked about consideration of maps prepared by the public.  If people are out there working on maps, “We need to be frank with the public about what we can do.” Lamb mentioned the web portal now allows the public to submit maps.

Harrell then posed a question for Meg Lamb.  “The commissioners will have no discussion about maps submitted by the public and we can’t talk to those people?”  Lamb responded, “Yes, they will be posted for all to see.”

Del. McQuinn asked for a schedule of when the map drawers will be present in person at the meetings.

Babichenko reminded commissioners to respond with their calendar availability in order to schedule more meetings and ensure a quorum.  DLS’ Meg Lamb and DLS Director, Amigo Wade, said only five responses had been received so far.  Lamb asked all commissioners to respond today, and they will be compiled as soon as they are received.

After a five-minute break, Co-chair Babichenko further clarified, “You can’t have a dialog with anyone if they give you a map.  You can accept the map, say “Thanks,” and forward it to staff.  There should be no back and forth.”

Babichenko then announced that legal counsel had talked with the map drawers and there is a need to manage expectations.  “There won’t be much to look at on August 30 if the data is not available until August 26.  We can ask them to provide a work plan with which maps, which dates, and when they need answers from us.”  Both attorneys agreed that they want to make sure expectations are reasonable.

In response to a question from Sen. Barker, attorney Hebert (D) said they expect to get the racially polarized voting (RPV) analysis on August 31.  It will be provided to the co-chairs for distribution and usually includes the names of candidates and districts with the percent of vote by race, data analysis, and narrative.  They are not sure how many elections will be analyzed as there are some data issues on matching precincts. Barker noted “a breakdown by geographic area would be helpful as some parts of Virginia have a significant number of whites voting with the African American community.”  Hebert pointed out that’s why they do the analysis.  “One size doesn’t fit all.”

Public Comment –

Nine members of the public traveled to Richmond and stepped up to address the Commission.

Nearly all thanked the Commissioners for their bipartisan vote to begin map-drawing “from scratch”, rather than using current maps as a starting point. Christina Verderosa (Newport News) and Jeffrey Clark (Henrico) both campaigned for the passage of the Constitutional Amendment and applauded efforts to offer transparency in the process. Verderosa reminded the Commission that “the public is watching.”
Katina Moss (Richmond) noted that this is a new process for Virginia, and hoped that the Commission will act in a manner that reassures the public that this is a process that can be trusted.
Brittney Rose (Henrico) asked for commitment to greater transparency and encouraged the Commission to make use of non-partisan evaluation once maps are drawn.
Dee Minor (Hampton) spoke in support of Moon Duchin, who commanded a large presence at a recent conference she attended. Ms. Duchin would give “fair and honest analysis” of any maps that are drawn.
Marcia Keener (Fredericksburg) spoke in support of joint fact finding and public trust. She asked for news about the communications specialist and asked for an improved website, saying, it’s not good enough to hear about the Commission and its meetings “through the grapevine.”
Fran Larkins (Fredericksburg) also expressed hope that the communications and outreach consultant would be “on board” soon. She thanked the DLS staff for adding a public comment portal to the Commission website.
Liz White, representing One Virginia 2021, noted that the Commission has made many decisions in recent meetings. While she was “not crazy about all decisions, and expects that she won’t love decisions in the future, she was very happy with today’s decision to start with blank maps. She reminded the Commissioners that the final version of the amendment was not designed to be non-partisan. We couldn’t remove partisanship, but we have tried to neutralize it by establishing a balanced, bipartisan commission. She reminded Commissioners that Virginia is the first state to pass redistricting reform through the legislature rather than a citizen initiated ballot initiative. “I have not lost faith in the process.” “My job to learn your process and provide tools and representation for fair maps.” She encouraged the Commissioners to “be hands on, be transparent, release maps for public comment and make the data available to public. She advised the Commission that hiring a non-partisan evaluator to evaluate each set of maps will help increase public confidence.” She hopes that map drawers will be little more than technicians. “While it can be upsetting to see the sausage being made, we still would rather it be made in public view.”

Chris DeRosa, representing the League of Women Voters of Virginia and its over 2200 members, noted that League members have worked hard for fair maps for many years. “We need fair maps for voters to elect representatives of their choice.” Although we may have preferred a non-partisan, all-citizen commission, the League is hopeful that the balanced, bipartisan Commission would work for the benefit of all Virginians. DeRosa cited transparency as one of the biggest improvements. “We are watching and listening” to all meetings and votes. She warned the Commissioners to not make any decisions behind closed doors. She expressed the hope that the Commissioners are reading all comments that have been submitted; “League members have read all comments,” she said. “We’ve heard loudly and clearly that people want communities kept together”, and that “not one person has advised the Commission to start with existing maps.” “The League thanks those who put aside partisanship with today’s vote. These messages are from the people of Virginia. Hear their voices. Do what’s right for people, not what’s right for the Ds or the Rs, not what’s right for partisan interests. What’s fair for the people, not for politicians.”

In response to the “landing the plane” message cited by one legislator/Commissioner, DeRosa warned that “You might land the plane, but if the politicians are in the pilot’s seats and the cabin door is locked, then you may not have the approval of the voters who are sitting in the main cabin.” She reminded that Commissioners that “you work for us. The League is here to work alongside you.”

More than a hundred Virginians from all corners of the Commonwealth submitted written comments to the Commission and DLS after the August 23 Commission meeting. They universally applauded the Commission’s decision to start “fresh”. Most also encouraged the Commission to hire a non-partisan mathematical analyst to evaluate the maps that are drawn.

Following the public comments, the commissioners went into closed session for an update from legal counsel on a lawsuit filed Friday in the Virginia state Supreme Court over plans to count prisoners at their last know address instead of the prisons where they’re incarcerated.

Upon return, the commissioners voted 13 – 3 to direct counsel to file a brief taking no position as a body in the lawsuit but urging the Supreme Court to move quickly. Voting NO were Abrenio, Locke, and Simon. The motion was made by citizen commissioner Harrell and seconded by Sen. McDougle.

LWV-VA Observer Corps
Candy Butler (LWV-FX)
Chris DeRosa (LWV-ARL)
Fran Larkins (LWV-FRA)
Peggy Layne (LWV-MC)


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