Commission Digs into Review of Draft Maps for Entire State

The Virginia Redistricting Commission began its review of two sets of draft maps for state legislative districts September 20, while acknowledging they do not yet reflect data that the commission will have to take into consideration before its work can be completed.

Democratic Co-Chair Greta Harris, who chaired the meeting, declared that it was “a very exciting day for the Virginia Redistricting Commission.” Four new sets of maps had been posted on the commission’s website two days earlier, and the commission’s two map drawers spent the bulk of the commission’s meeting walking members through the reasoning behind the lines they had drawn. The map makers explained that their latest drafts incorporate the first version of the maps they previously drew for Northern Virginia and did not revisit those maps in describing their work at this meeting.

At the outset of his presentation, Ken Strasma, the Democratic map maker, stressed that “in no way is this a final proposal.” Strasma said that he did not look at election data or incumbent addresses, and that at some point that data would need to be considered to assess the maps’ political neutrality. He said that he had focused on keeping jurisdictions together and creating compact districts and where possible, grouping similar communities. Strasma said he had looked at some public comments posted with his first drafts, “and it’s clear that the public is weighing in.” But he noted that the map makers are supposed to take their direction from the commission, after it distills the comments and provides guidance.

Republican map maker John Morgan said he, too, had focused on preserving jurisdictions and compactness. Strasma said that using three different measures of compactness, all the drafts were more compact than the current maps. Using one particular measurement, he said his Democratic Senate map would be judged to be more compact, but the Republican-drawn map would be considered more compact for the House districts. Both map makers described factors, such as major highways, military bases and rural-urban differences that they had considered in describing where they chose to draw the lines. The proposals also reflected some messages that the commission had already heard from the public, such as keeping the city of Lynchburg intact. The map makers’ detailed presentations can be reviewed when the archived video of the commission’s meeting is posted to its website. A lengthy document, showing each of the draft districts, is here.  (The map makers were encouraged to adopt the same protocol for numbering districts, and to choose contrasting colors to make them easier to review.)

At the end of their lengthy presentations, the map makers were urged to review those parts of the state, mostly rural areas, where their maps were similar to see if they could reach a consensus on those districts. The populations of those areas also are largely white, and thus not subject to the  Racially Polarized Voting analysis to which certain other parts of the state must be subjected.

It was also suggested that relaxing the permissible population deviation might make it easier for the map makers to reach consensus on some districts. Although the permissible standard for legislative districts is a deviation of plus or minus five percentage points, the commission had adopted a deviation of only two percentage points, which required map makers to tack on small numbers of precincts in certain instances to achieve that goal, and led to differences between their maps in terms of which precincts were chosen to reach the right total. (This also served to splinter some jurisdictions.) 

The commission had agreed in advance not to take any votes at the meeting (which requires it to meet an in-person quorum) but debate again broke out regarding minority representation and political considerations. As Strasma made his presentation, he pointed out districts that would be either “majority-minority,” many of them with an African-American population of about 52 percent, “coalition” districts where the minority population was higher than 50 percent if groups were combined, and “minority opportunity districts,” where a minority group represented a significant portion of the population, usually in the range of 30 to 40 percent. It was stressed that the map makers have not yet used general election data to review past racial voting patterns, even though it is in their toolkit. Pertinent primary election data will be integrated into their tools by the commission’s next meeting. They also do not yet have benefit of an updated Racially Polarized Voting analysis.

Strasma said, however, that if current Senate districts were reviewed using the 2020 census data, there would be three majority African-American districts, nine districts where a coalition of minorities could make a majority, and nine “opportunity” districts where there is a substantial minority voting bloc. He said that under his draft Senate maps, there would be four majority districts, two fewer coalition districts and three more opportunity districts.

On the House side, he said under the current districts, there would be six majority African-American districts, 25 coalition districts, and 30 opportunity districts. Under his draft maps, there would be nine majority African-American districts, 20 coalition districts and 27 opportunity districts.  Morgan said under both sets of maps, about 30 percent of the districts in each chamber would be considered “majority non-white.”

Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), who is African-American, expressed concern about “retrogression,” that is reversing opportunities for minority representation once those gains had been achieved. Locke said she could not support maps that were retrogressive, and feared the draft maps could be viewed that way. Others noted that even if the U.S. Supreme Court had weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act in terms of those considerations, the Virginia constitution still contains strong voting rights language. Lawyers also reiterated that the draft maps have not yet been reviewed with an eye to those considerations because the data analysis has not been completed and pertinent primary data from the past decade has not yet integrated into the commission’s software tools.

Counsel said there was no bright line for determining when a district had been “packed” with minority voters to reduce their impact. Democratic counsel J. Gerald Hebert explained that in the past, districts were given a higher minority population in recognition of differences in registration and turnout. In response to a question from Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville), it was explained that in analyzing changes in minority representation, it was appropriate to use current population numbers for existing districts, rather than the population data from the 2010 census. Strasma also explained that the population was increasingly multi-racial, and that he was using census numbers that included mixed-race African-Americans in the African-American total. It was also noted that there are precincts in the Williamsburg area where the minority population appears to be overstated, but unless the Census Bureau adjusts its data, the commission cannot factor that into its work.

At the end of the Democratic map maker’s presentation, Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) observed that outside groups, such as the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), are already beginning to analyze the political impact of the draft maps. He said that because the data were available, he would prefer to “see some of those layers” before the maps were merged. Referring to the map makers, he said, “These guys don’t live in a bubble.”

While some commission members preferred to delay looking at political data, Strasma said that the map makers’ job would be easier if they could use the data sooner rather than later because they would ultimately have to consider partisan fairness. “It feels like the map makers are the only people in the state who have not looked at the data,” he said, but added that he deferred to the decision of the commission.

Harris said she would confer with her Republican co-chair, Mackenzie Babichenko, and their counsel on directions that could be given to move the process along more quickly before the next meeting. That might include relaxing the population deviation standard, looking for consensus areas, and starting to review the partisan fairness of the map. Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) again pushed to review incumbent addresses from DLS’s data, not other sources.

Babichenko, an assistant Commonwealth’s attorney for Hanover County, questioned how her county had been divided, and pointed out that the way the Republican map maker had drawn the Senate district where she lives, it would split her planned community, putting an elementary school in one Senate district and the upper schools in another.

Babichenko’s comments underscored the importance public comments can play in helping map makers understand finer points of their proposed maps and decisions, particularly regarding communities of interest that were inadvertently divided. Simon asked about the unusual shape of House District 9 in Northern Virginia, and was advised it reflected including the Manassas Airport and an adjacent industrial area with the jurisdiction with which they were a part.

The meeting ended with a presentation by Mindy Carlin, one of the commission’s communications consultants, on the work the consultants have completed.  Carlin said the consultants had categorized the 600 comments the commission has already received through email or through a new website tool. For 377 of the comments, the consultants were able to assign a region and reported that the greatest number came from the Northern Virginia region, with 80 more from the Central region. At the other end of the spectrum, seven comments had been received from the Southwest region and three from Southside. By the end of the day, the consultants expected to have implemented a new form on the commission’s website to categorize new comments according to region, topic, stakeholder group and other criteria.

However, one unresolved question was how the consultants’ data base would integrate comments that the public has filed through the commission’s mapping software in response to the draft maps. Comments were continuing to be filed even as the commission reviewed the maps. It was not clear when and how the two repositories would be combined.

As Carlin outlined strategies for outreach, future website improvements, advertising buys and social media graphics, commissioners urged her to move quickly, noting that the commission’s second round of public hearings are only a few weeks away. Harris reiterated the need to reach out to persons for whom English was not their native language. Carlin said they would be using the approach followed by the State Department of Elections as a guide in determining which languages to support.

In the sole virtual public comment made at the meeting, Ankit Jain praised the Republican draft map for Northern Virginia, which he felt did a better job of preserving communities of interest. He noted that the map did not divide the George Mason University campus and created a district in eastern Loudoun County with a plurality of Asians, something he had urged in his previous public comments.

Jain went on to introduce the question of partisan fairness, as reviewed by VPAP. He said that the Republican maps would create a partisan split of 52.5 percent Democratic to 47.5 percent Republican, while the Democratic maps would create a split of 54 percent Democratic to 46 percent Republican, closer to the statewide partisan split of the 2020 presidential election in Virginia. He urged the commission to adopt the Democratic map for all parts of the state except for Northern Virginia, where he preferred the Republican approach. 


–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church.

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