Commission Continues Review of Draft Maps for Northern Virginia

The Virginia Redistricting Commission September 9 resumed its review of draft legislative maps from a larger area of Northern Virginia, but not without some sharp exchanges between some commission members about the treatment of incumbents.

At its next meeting at 1 p.m. on September 13, the commission’s two professional map drawers will put forward proposals for  the Tidewater and Eastern Shore. Map drawers are working their way around the state, adding a contiguous region each time. The commission plans to review a new region at the start of each week, with further discussion at a second meeting later in the week. Republican Co-Chair Mackenzie Babichenko, who ran this meeting, stressed that the commission shares draft maps with the public as soon as it can after it receives them. She urged the public to comment on what they don’t like, as well as what they do like about the proposals, and stressed that at this point, “We are not setting anything in stone.”

At more than one point in the meeting, Babichenko praised the drafts that the commission had received. “From my personal standpoint,” she said,  “everything that has been submitted looks better than what we have now.” She urged the public to “bear with us,” and said that “everyone is doing everything as fast as humanly possible.” She added that the commission was trying to be “as transparent as possible,” but that means “a less efficient process than if we were in a back room making decisions.”

Much of the meeting was spent reviewing expanded maps of Northern Virginia, one prepared by a Republican-affiliated team and the other affiliated with the Democrats. The commission’s new tool for reviewing draft maps can be reviewed here. The most recent updates are labeled “2,” with a proposal drawn by each of the professionals, one for the House of Delegates (HOD) and the other for the Senate (S). Comments on the maps can be left directly where they are viewed. The latest maps incorporate Loudoun and Clarke County to the west, and districts as far south as Stafford County, Fredericksburg and parts of Spotsylvania County. The two professionals did not address exactly the same counties, because they left open jurisdictions that they would need to combine with others to achieve the right population number. It was noted, however, that there were some districts for which their maps were very similar.

So far, the map-makers have not reviewed any of the public comments that have been submitted to the commission over its eight months of work. The commission’s Democratic co-chair, Greta Harris, said that that a week from now, its newly hired communications consultants are expected to finish their work of sifting through and organizing “minimally about a thousand comments.” The comments will be organized by region, and Harris said that if the commission receives a “high percentage” of comments for a particular concern, such as “keep Fredericksburg whole,” the commission would prioritize those concerns and give guidance to the map makers.

But Richard Harrell, a Republican citizen member from South Boston, expressed concern that the commission would  pay attention to the number and “velocity” of comments, a term Harris used. He said he believed he was supposed to use his “best judgment,” and opposed the idea that he was “supposed to follow a few people who are more energized than others.”

As the maps were discussed, arguments broke out over the use of incumbent addresses. In August, the commission formally adopted the criteria the map drawers were to use, specifying that political data “may” be reviewed “to ensure compliance” with its political neutrality provision and incumbent addresses “may” be considered as part of the drafting process. The Virginia Public Access Project and legislators themselves had reviewed the first round of draft maps and pointed out where incumbents had been placed in the same district. This is a particular issue in Northern Virginia, where incumbents live closer to each other because of population density. Commission members Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) and Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) would have to run against other incumbents under at least one of the proposals.

Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) asserted, “I think we should make sure our map makers are not including” incumbent addresses. The discussion grew more heated when it was learned that the team of Democratic map makers  had used information from Redistricting Data Hub, a non-partisan source of redistricting information, to understand where legislators lived. Ken Strasma, the Democratic map maker, said the organization makes the information available to the public, but requires users to register out of safety concerns. John Morgan, the Republican map maker, said he had not used such data.

Barker said the issue was not “insignificant,” because the information had been used “maliciously” in the past, when the party in power pitted incumbents against each other. He contended that when the Democrats drew the 2011 Senate boundaries, they made a point of not putting two senators in the same district, except when districts were combined because of lost population.

Democratic citizen member Sean Kumar responded, “Part of the reason that was happening in the past was because of gerrymandering.”

Babichenko achieved a consensus agreement that the commission might eventually check incumbent addresses, but not at this stage. Ken Strasma, the lead Democratic map maker, said, he was “agnostic” about incumbent addresses, and would follow that guidance. 

The professional map makers walked through their proposals, describing, in most cases, how they had tried not to break up jurisdictions, tried to follow traffic corridors, and tried to group communities that were similar in nature, such as suburban or rural. The Democratic map makers described some districts where certain minority groups were clustered. Because white residents of Northern Virginia tend to vote the same way minorities do, the area is not considered racially polarized, for voting rights purposes. In response to a question from Simon, the Democratic team said they had looked for opportunities to give such minorities a voice, even if they were not required to. Simon noted that information would be useful when having conversations about preserving “communities of interest,” a new criteria.

The map makers said they had also adhered to the commission’s instructions not to have a population deviation of plus or minus two percentage points; the law, however, is not that restrictive.

After the professionals’ maps were discussed, Barker presented an alternative for three Senate districts, Districts 6, 7 and 3. The draft maps had put the precinct where Barker lives into the district of fellow Democratic Sen. Chap Peterson. (Peterson currently represents 39 precincts in the proposed district, while Barker represents only two.) Barker proposed shifting two precincts among each of the three Senate districts he described to keep the incumbents separate.

Barker said that after the discussion at the previous meeting, he had talked with Amigo Wade, head of the Division of Legislative Services, about how he might prepare his own proposal, since individual commission members are not permitted to consult with the map makers. A DLS staff member was dispatched to work with Barker on his idea. Barker then detailed to the commission the reasons why he felt his approach made sense.

Kumar then asked, “I’m not sure why we are sharing this. It seems like this is a statement of self-interest. It seems like there should be a limit on speeches. If someone or someone else’s colleague doesn’t like it, we are catering” to them. “I think it’s a bad precedent to have a member submitting his own maps,” when the commission represents “8 million Virginians.”

Babichenko replied that Barker “is a citizen” who was permitted to put his ideas into a redistricting shape file and submit it, just as others could. John Morgan, the Republican map maker, noted that Barker had made some suggestions to an existing plan, and that that was helpful; he “provided a solution and did so in writing.”

Harris commented that every commission member was free to do that. “We are from different parts of the Commonwealth, we have different knowledge.” DLS staff members, she said, were prepared to help them. Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) noted that the commission had had good input from Northern Virginia and urged the staff to reach out to other parts of the state so that their residents would know when their maps were being discussed. Noting that no members of the public were in Richmond to make comments in person at that meeting, Simon and Harris urged the DLS staff to review the technical issues to see if a way could be found for members of the public to provide virtual comments when meetings were livestreamed.

At the end of the three-hour meeting, which Babichenko acknowledged was “intense,” McQuinn thanked the two co-chairs for their leadership. “You are doing a good job of herding cats,” she said, and praised the way they were working together. Her comments were greeted with applause.

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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