Commission Prepares to Draw Congressional Maps

At its previous meeting, on Friday, October 8, the Virginia Redistricting Commission was unable to reach a compromise on how to proceed with redrawing of the House and Senate legislative maps.  The meeting ended abruptly when three citizen commissioners, including Co-chair Greta Harris, walked out of the room. It was unclear at that time how the Commission would move forward.

Many questions were addressed at the scheduled Commission meeting on Monday, October 11.  Both co-chairs were in attendance, but it was held virtually so there were no votes taken.  Commissioners instead concentrated on listening to legal counsel and discussion of options for the next in-person Commission meeting which will be Thursday, October 14 at 8 a.m. 

October 11 was the Constitutionally mandated deadline to send maps to the General Assembly but both lawyers for the Commission indicated a formal notice was not required.  One could be helpful, however, in moving the process along to the Supreme Court of Virginia (SCoVA) if the Commission votes it is their intent to no longer attempt to pass a set of House and Senate maps. 

Dr. Kareem Crayton, Democratic counsel, also advised against revisiting the “starting date” which was decided previously as August 26, and which set the deadline of October 25 for Congressional maps. “Now we’ve chosen, it would raise more questions about why we made decision in first place.  You don’t want to open another question.”  Republican counsel Chris Bartolomucci agreed, and citizen commissioner Sean Kumar said, “It could get really messy to revisit it at this point.  The reality is if it’s over, let’s put SCoVA on notice.” 

This will be considered further Thursday along with the Commission’s first attempt at redrawing of Congressional District maps which are due to the General Assembly by October 25.  Proposals for how to begin map drawing ranged from starting with “viable” citizen maps to using the current maps for Districts 3 and 4 which have already been “blessed by the courts.”  The Commission will need to decide on whether and how to use the map drawers.  Division of Legislative Services (DLS) could assist but they would require very explicit decisions and instructions. DLS attorney Meg Lamb cautioned, “DLS is uncomfortable with being a partisan referee.”

As Monday’s meeting drew to a close, Del. Les Adams (R-Chatham) requested that legal counsel address the status of Co-chair Harris’ membership on the Commission.  He felt it important to clarify whether Harris officially resigned before any votes are taken Thursday.  After considerable discussion among the commissioners, Del. Adams said he would “take Harris’ word on what her intention was but it’s a legal matter and a very reasonable request.”  Several commissioners followed, expressing their personal frustrations at the “fundamental lack of trust and suspicion of motives” on the Commission.  Co-chair Babichenko suggested “We didn’t have an opportunity to get to know each other because of COVID.”

 PUBLIC COMMENTS AND MORE COMPLETE DETAILS ON THE COMMISSION MEETING FOLLOW –

Co-chair Babichenko noted that they will continue with public comment at the top of the agenda, rather than at the end of each meeting.  Six of seven Virginians who signed up to speak joined Monday morning’s meeting.

Edward Strickler noted that public servants deserve greater appreciation. He asked the Commission to keep the common interest of communities in mind — that interest is shared and involves equity issues; it’s not just for political interest or power.  

Nicole Merlene (Arlington) returned to reiterate her comments about Arlington, which is currently represented by four Delegates – she noted that all draft maps have Arlington represented by three Delegates rather than four.  Some of the maps do not have a single Delegate district entirely within the county. She asked the Commission to draw at least one House district “entirely within Arlington.”  On the other hand, she said, the Senate maps “seem to work for Arlington.”  She reminded the Commission that 70% of Arlingtonians live in apartments or condos, yet the proposed maps have single-family home residents “seeping into” all three districts.  She thanked the Commissioners for “all your work.”

Robert Barnette, president of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, asked the Commissioners to remember their commitment to voters of color who do not want their democratic power diluted.  The Commission, he said, must not “create districts that offer less opportunity for minority candidates” than currently exist.  He asked that majority-minority districts be maintained “without packing or cracking,” to focus on communities of interest and communities of color – include those with similar cultural, economic interests.

Andres Tobar spoke on behalf of the Latino Community. Tobar is executive director of the Shirlington (Arlington) Employment Center, an immigrant assistance program, and a leader of the Virginia Latino Leaders Council, which is led by Walter Tejada.  The Virginia LLC submitted map #236 “to allow you to hear from members of the Latino community.” It is “not our intent to displace or gerrymander,” but to offer a map “that is reasonable.”  Map 236 creates 8 Latino-opportunity districts, and 29 majority-minority opportunity districts.  He offered to submit a list of those districts. “As 10% of the population, we figured it’s time for Latinos to be at the table, and from the perspective of reasonableness, to have Latinos at the table.”

Ankit Jain of Vienna expressed his hope “that you can make Congressional maps work.”  He had two suggestions :  1) hire one map drawer, not two. “We agree that two don’t work.”  He recalled that DLS staff offered to draw the Congressional maps. (2) Republican members “need to work toward compromise;” offers to compromise seem to be coming “just from one side.  It needs to come from both” (sides).

Finally, Pete Costigan of Greene County, offered to share his experiences as a volunteer “advocating for redistricting reform” for many years. He began talking to voters in his own precinct, then expanded his efforts to the other precincts in Greene County, and then into surrounding counties. He made conscious decisions to talk with many different voters to achieve a “diversity of information.”  He noted that hundreds of other volunteers also talked to voters in different precincts in different areas of the state. In many cases, “I was preaching to the choir. Others came to see the benefits” of this process/Commission after realizing the deadening effect of gerrymandering. Costigan called Commissioners’ attention to House map B7 which included changes to map B6. He encouraged them to also look at recent maps submitted by citizens. He agreed with the Commission’s plan to proceed with Congressional maps and suggested that it could re-visit state legislative maps before the deadline.

Following public comments, the Commission considered how to move forward with Congressional district maps. Presiding Co-chair Babichenko suggested using maps submitted by members of the public as a starting point.  Each counsel could comment on three viable citizen options. Both legal teams pointed out that it is first important to understand the governing principles. Dr. Crayton advised that Congressional maps are governed by a tighter set of restraints.  “The deviation is very narrow with plus or minus one but as nearly equal as possible.  The population numbers are larger so there are more choices about what to do with ‘communities of interest.’  You also have to look at the equal opportunity provisions of the Voting Rights Act, Section 2 and be mindful that race isn’t predominant over other criteria. Virginia’s state law also includes a commitment to political opportunity statewide.”

Bryan Tyson, Republic counsel, agreed with Crayton’s summary.  “Citizen maps are more challenging because of Districts 3 and 4 and drawing that southeast part of the state.  Most citizens don’t take the Voting Rights Act into account. “Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria) added, to the surprise of some commissioners, “One of the things that’s different is members of Congress are not required to live in their districts, so residence is not an issue.”

Co-chair Babichenko asked if it would be easier or more difficult to start with the current map.  “Is that a bad idea or useful or do the population shifts throw it all off so we’d have to redo? What is a good starting point – the southwest?”  Dr. Crayton suggested there are parts of the map that are advisable to start with because of the Voting Rights Act.  “Courts have blessed the best thinking about racial minorities and there’s not as much uncertainty.  District 4 is already close to the ideal population.  Do you wish to work from that?  On the current map, the public would say change Districts 5, 6, or 7 for compactness.  It would be useful if people can tell you what’s wrong with those districts.”

Co-chair Babichenko mentioned as options they could start with what they like on the current map and draw lines as a commission or could start with a completely blank map.  Dr. Crayton mentioned taking Districts 3 and 4 and deciding how you want to go with the rest.  Republic counsel Bryan Tyson added they could look at what is wrong with the rest of the map that they wouldn’t want in the new map.  Tyson agreed with Crayton’s recommendation to start with Voting Rights Act compliance.  For the remainder he sees value in looking at current boundaries and evaluating the districts from a partisan basis.

Division of Legislative Services (DLS) attorney Meg Lamb reported the current Congressional district map is up on the website and Dr. Crayton mentioned there is robust public comment already.    Co-chair Babichenko encouraged the public to put comments there for direction to the Commission.  Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) said he understood the lawyers on Districts 3 and 4 and asked whether anyone had looked at a third “opportunity- district.”  Democratic counsel Crayton said perhaps coalition groups could be bridged in Northern Virginia, but the Republican counsel responded, “It is the areas with Racially Polarized Voting where the considerations would play under Virginia state law. “

Co-chair Babichenko said she is looking forward to more robust conversation on Thursday, including how to more toward more competitive or “purple” districts. “Sen. Barker remarked that Sen. Mamie Locke has extensive experience with Congressional district maps such as her map from 2015.  “She was on top of it.”  Democratic citizen commissioner Sean Kumar commented, “We still need to maintain political fairness but think of independent citizens rather than political parties.”

Co-chair Harris pointed out, “We have three additional meetings scheduled – Thursday, Monday, and Wednesday and then have a map we can vote on October 25.”   She suggested they draw lines together with one map drawer. “It’s not been the most efficient to have two.” Co-chair Babichenko instead thought they could alternate map drawers and chairs during the map drawing process.  She asked if it would be possible to use the Division of Legislative Services (DLS) as a single map drawer.  DLS’ Meg Lamb said it would be possible for them to assist but there must be very explicit decisions and instructions.  “DLS is uncomfortable with being a partisan referee.”  Kumar said he won’t be available for Thursday’s meeting but recommended both map drawers give their thoughts together so there is one solution at a time.

Co-chair Babichenko said they are trying to avoid two “dueling maps,” and asked for further proposals by Thursday.  DLS’ Lamb reminded them to send the emails to the staff and they would be happy to circulate.  Babichenko added, “It’s never a bad idea to pick up the phone.”  She also commented, “Not everyone shared my view about not pursuing state maps on the phone this past weekend.”

Co-chair Harris suggested “If there’s general agreement, a starting point could be Districts 3 and 4.  We could encourage the public to submit updated Congressional District maps starting with those 2 districts.”  Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) objected, “We can express ideas, but we run into problems if we try to build consensus in a virtual meeting.”

There were further repercussions from Friday’s “walk-out” when Del. Les Adams (R-Chatham) said he felt it important to address the status of membership of the Commission members   He asked for legal advice before they move forward Thursday with votes. “I’m not aware of any reason a verbal resignation is not effective in Virginia.”  Co-chair Greta Harris explained, “I said I removed myself from the Commission ‘at this point’ but the word ‘resign’ never crossed my lips.  I made it clear to DLS staff and the media that I was not resigning.”

One citizen commissioner agreed with Del. Adams; others supported Co-chair Harris.  Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Chatham) suggested that Del. Adams was bringing it up so it wouldn’t later be challenged in a court of law.  “Let’s get a legal ruling.” He also added, “Let’s put the pointed sticks back in the quiver and get back to work.” 

Several commissioners followed, expressing their personal frustration.  Sen. McDougle “thought Friday was a total ‘sandbag’ and when there’s a strong push to lock in a position, it feels like they are trying to lock in a record for SCoVA.”   He suggested, “We need to talk candidly including about competitive elections and what does ‘political neutrality’ look like?”  Democratic citizen commissioner James Abrenio of Fairfax thanked DLS staff and spoke of how they are all making sacrifices in their lives to serve on the Commission.  “Our goal was not to ‘sandbag’.  It was to offer a reasonable compromise to have a reasonable starting point. SCoVA is here as a legal, explicit outcome envisioned in the amendment.  Some say the citizens walking out made a grave mistake.  I don’t think whether Brandon and I left will make a difference.”

Co-chair Babichenko spoke of how she talked to folks on both sides by phone over the weekend. “There is a fundamental lack of trust and suspicion of motives.  We didn’t have an opportunity to get to know each other because of COVID.  We don’t even agree what ‘political fairness’ means. Thanks to those who have tried to help us figure it out but it’s a deeper issue.  Hopefully, the Congressional districts will be less personal.” 

Del. Adams added, “If it’s a clear answer, one way or the other, if it’s up to interpretation or debate, I’m not calling for a vote.  We’ll take the word of Co-chair Harris on what her intention was. It’s a legal matter, very reasonable and ought to be done before votes are cast. “Co-chair Babichenko announced that Dr. Crayton had prepared a response in writing but had to leave the meeting; Bryan Tyson will respond by 1 p.m.  She then concluded the meeting.

Four additional meetings have been scheduled in preparation for creating Congressional District maps –

Thursday, October 14; Monday, October 18; Wednesday October 20; and Monday, October 25.  All are at 8 a.m.  In addition, a public hearing is listed on the Commission web site for Friday, October 22 at 10 a.m.  

 

LWV-VA Observer Corps –
Candy Butler, LWV-FX
Carolyn Caywood, LWV-SHR
Chris DeRosa, LWV-ARL
Peggy Layne, LWV-MC

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