“Hail Mary” Proposal Results in One Draft Map of Congressional Districts
When the Virginia Redistricting Commission next came together on Thursday, October 14, presiding Co-chair Greta Harris announced that the Commission would be moving on to Congressional maps. The co-chairs had met and given instructions for staff to start with Districts 3 and 4 which were drawn by the courts and then proceed to three districts in the Southwest and Southside; three districts in Northern Virginia; and two districts in the middle of the state. Initially, the Republican and Democrat map drawers each reviewed maps that had been posted on the Commission web site the previous evening. They later also incorporated maps for a few missing regions so that the entire state could be viewed.
Their discussion included whether Districts 3 and 4 were the best starting point. The counsels advised those two maps “represent the safest route to compliance with the Voting Rights Act because they were drawn by the Special Master and blessed by the federal courts.” Both map drawers focused on compactness, and this created its own set of issues. Did the more east/west alignment of the proposed districts benefit the Republicans and hint at gerrymandering? Should districts cross mountains to be more compact or run lengthwise through the valleys on either side of the mountain?
Several commissioners also reminded everyone that there is still uncertainty about “partisan fairness” and unduly favoring one party or the other. Co-chair Harris asked “what is a reasonable goal for a Congressional District given population changes and recent election results. What is fair balance? This is the most sensitive direction we can give.” Citizen commissioner James Abrenio wanted to know, “How are other commissions treating this? What does the public think?”
As the meeting drew to a close, a “Hail Mary” proposal by Democrat counsel Dr. Kareem Crayton paved the way for the Commission to post one map for public comments. “Let’s agree about Districts 3 and 4 and we would accept, for the moment, John Morgan’s (Republican) District 4 and District 5 and “our” District 2 and District 7.” Republican counsel Bryan Tyson said he largely agreed. “If we want one map, use the three districts Zach [Coomes] drew in Northern Virginia, John’s [Morgan] Southwest, Zach’s 2 and 7, and agree on Districts 3 and 4. John’s District 1 could also work.” Dr. Crayton added, “It would be helpful to hear what people think about the configurations.”
The combined map was posted Thursday evening on the Commission website as #364, C1 Statewide. The next meeting of the Commission will be Monday, October 18 at 8 a.m. Your comments on the map can be posted online and your views on “partisan fairness” and whether districts should cross mountains should be submitted via the Comments Form on the Commission web site. You can also send emails to the Commission at . The deadline to sign up to speak virtually at Monday’s meeting is Sunday, October 17 at noon.
PUBLIC COMMENTS AND MORE COMPLETE DETAILS ON THE COMMISSION MEETING FOLLOW –
Co-chair Greta Harris announced that 101 people had registered to make public comments. Due to the number, the speakers have been divided into four groups; each speaker was allotted 1 minute for comments. Co-Chair Harris also announced that should a speaker not be present, the Commission would not “go back” to him or her when they did connect; she asked that they send an email to the Commission with their comments. Of the 101 people registered to make comment, 12 actually spoke.
Lisa Merkel, Herndon (former mayor) said that it is important to keep the three Herndon precincts together in all districts, 4.2 square miles. A letter from the current mayor with support from other previous mayors has been sent to the Commission stating this view.
Sam Shirazi submitted map #211. He said it is “insanity” to do the same thing and expect different results. Consider citizen maps; don’t split the Shenandoah Valley; it doesn’t make sense. Don’t put, Charlottesville and Albemarle County in the same district as “the Valley”. There are multiple public comments to this effect. He asked the commissioners to put themselves in the citizens’ shoes; think what you can live with; come up with realistic maps.
Rebecca Quinn, Albemarle County/Charlottesville, lived out of the state for 30 years and returned. She is a long-term supporter of OneVirginia2021. She asked the Commission to put aside partisan politics, give logical, compact, contiguous maps – representation that represents us.
Sheila Olem, mayor of Herndon, agreed with Lisa Merkel’s comments as well as Mr. Shirazi’s. “Keep the 3 Herndon precincts together in whatever district, hear us as a whole.”
Chris De Rosa, Arlington, said that she was surprised and pleased at the number of people who signed up to speak. She expressed disappointment that the Commission was unable to agree on House of Delegates and State Senate district maps. “I am dismayed at the acrimonious discussions and disgusted at the personal attacks.” She encouraged the commissioners to try to work together. Ms. De Rosa said that she believes the maps under discussion are all better than the current maps. She believes the Commission is moving in the right direction and suggested that working on one map rather than six different maps would be a more effective approach.
Richard Zimmerman, Chesapeake, spoke about a structure for the Congressional districts. He suggested “nesting” the House of Delegate districts within the Congressional districts, referring to Map #164 (Congressional Districts). He further suggested aligning them with school zones and divide only as needed, using census, SMSAs, transit by highways.
Joy Loving, Shenandoah Valley, echoed the remarks of Ms. De Rosa, saying that it is important the Commission finish the job it was tasked to do. She observed that the process is clunky, possibly not expected to work, but prefers the commissioners, as representatives of Virginians, to draw maps, put aside differences and discontinue the partisan approach.
Robert Hofheimer spoke about the loss of Leigh Middleditch, founder of OneVirginia2021. “In 2013, Mr. Middleditch brought together leaders from across Virginia to focus on improving Virginia’s voting process.” Mr. Hofheimer said that more moderates are needed. He agreed with other speakers who said that commissioners should not just represent their own feelings – more moderates and less sniping in the General Assembly.
Emille Bryant, a first-time Virginia voter, supports the Commission. She said she is encouraged to hear citizens asking that partisanship be set aside. In her view, districts will determine resources; 2021 population centers may shift; take time to understand people. She echoed the comments of others for the Commission to set aside party and personal interest and do what’s right.
Fran Larkins, south Stafford County, agreed with Ms. De Rosa’s comments. Ms. Larkins has volunteered with OneVirginia2021 and the League of Women Voters. She continued, suggesting the Commission work outward, in concentric semi-circles, from DC, to build the Congressional districts. She mentioned the report of the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting which met 10 years ago. District 7 in that map included Stafford County, Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania County in a Congressional district that is more oriented toward Northern Virginia. Ms. Larkins observed that Stafford County does not belong in a rural district. She ended, “Please give us a competitive district. Right now, I feel like we have no representation at all and no chance of being heard in Washington.”
Rebecca Hanmer, Fredericksburg, supported Ms. Larkins’ remarks about Congressional districts. She asked that the Commission not give up, rise above partisan concerns, find a way ahead. Ms. Hanmer commented that map A7 for the House of Delegates could be used. She suggested using a non-partisan university mapping expert for State Senate maps to find compromise. She remains optimistic the Commission will succeed.
Linda Goudreau seconded other speakers’ pleas for non-partisan representation. She commented specifically that Ms. Loving and Ms. Bryant made excellent comments. And she acknowledged that she appreciates the difficulty of the work before the Commission.
Following the public comments, Republican map drawer John Morgan and the Democrats’ Zach Coomes reviewed the maps each had prepared starting with Districts 3 and 4 and proceeding to the Southwest and Southside, and three districts in Northern Virginia. Each district met the ideal population except for one district with one person over.
Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) asked about the use of “abp” in the data and Dr. Crayton clarified it is “individuals who designate African American in combination with those who designate African American and another race.” At a later point, Co-chair Harris asked the attorneys for a summary of the minority data. The Division of Legislative Services (DLS) attorney Meg Lamb confirmed that the Congressional data also included the adjusted numbers for the prison population.
Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) commented he was suspicious that District 5 goes more east and west than north and south. “If you take a little bit of Henrico County for Southside, that starts to feel like a gerrymander because you are cracking suburbs trending blue. Henrico won’t feel they have any representation.” John Morgan said it would be a simple trade to take a larger portion of Chesterfield and none of Henrico. Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria) added that “Chesterfield has had a significant change in population, including African Americans and voting patterns have changed significantly in the last 10 years.”
Republican citizen commissioner Rick Harrell countered, “I don’t personally like the entrance into Richmond for the 5th District, but we get into trouble when we characterize the intentions of other parties as being underhanded for taking a less northerly route. Let’s leave characterization alone.”
Sen. McDougle suggested looking at some of the other citizen maps. Del Simon was concerned that if they look at maps from other sources, they will need to get information on who drew those maps and who paid for them. Co-chair Harris said the focus is now on commission map drawers. “We’re not looking at starting with outside maps, but they could be used later to help with specific problems.”
Del. Les Adams (R-Chatham) asked why Franklin wasn’t included in District 5 and Morgan explained that could have led to a possible split in the city of Roanoke. Del. Simon inquired about keeping District 6 on one side of the mountain.
When attention turned to the Democrats maps, Zach Coomes said they had tried to keep the districts compact and not split towns. Where it was necessary to split a county, they used a natural feature or a major road as the dividing line. There was discussion about whether it would be best to split Prince William Co., Loudoun, or Fairfax. Sen. Barker asked whether they looked at an option for a district with a more sizeable Hispanic population and Coomes said their primary goal was compactness. Attorney Crayton added that could be explored but this is an area with the least recognizable Racially Polarized Voting (RPV) and it would be treated differently. Sen. Barker commented he would try to track down a map which was proposed in the 2015 special session that concentrated Hispanics in District 8. He also pointed out that the Asian population is concentrated in eastern Loudoun and western Fairfax and Prince William. Crayton then summarized the “apb voting age” benchmark population and combined minority population in Districts 3, 4 and the northern districts of 8, 10, and 11. He referred to the “benchmark plan” which he explained are “the districts in force today, based on 2020 census.”
Republican attorney Bryan Tyson did the same for Districts 3 and 4 plus Districts 2, 7 and 9 on their version of the maps. The data would also be made available on the website.
Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko asked whether the “apb” for District 4 is too low and whether it would be difficult to raise the number. Attorney Crayton responded, “What’s the goal? One of the reasons to start with Districts 3 and 4 is because they represent the safest route to compliance with the Voting Rights Act. They were drawn by the Special Master and blessed by the federal courts.” Republican attorney Tyson agreed. “The Special Master map is a defensible starting point.” Sen. Barker added, “There is no need to change. It would be risking a challenge.”
Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) spoke “as a proud member of the African American Community. There are multi-facets of issues that determine outcomes – financial ability to reach constituency, popularity, name recognition, the platform. I know and have seen how many elections and outcomes may not necessarily have been in the best interests of the community, however the community elected those individuals.” Citizen commissioner Harrell, trying to understand, said he thought in determining whether we had Racially Polarized Voting (RPV) the inquiry depended on one particular election – that for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Attorney Bryan Tyson replied that the RPV is the test under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Whether a candidate of choice is usually defeated is not just for one election but for the closest recent elections and the candidate of choice may not be the black candidate. Democrats’ counsel Crayton explained that because of increased absentee voting they used one election to provide the most useful data.
The commissioners then reviewed the Congressional District maps for the Central and Eastern regions. These were loaded later in the day and are available for comment as A4 (Repulican) and B4 (Democrat). Co-chair Harris said they would “love public comments.” DLS’ Lamb said data to accompany the reports will also be available online.
Del. Simon expressed strong concern that the maps were not competitive with John Morgan’s map showing six strongly Republican districts and five Democrats. The Democrats haven’t lost a statewide election. Neither of the maps is a good starting point. “If we had followed I-81 further north it would have kept the valley together even though it was longer and narrower. Both are nonstarters for me.”
Co-chair Babichenko asked, “What if we have map drawers adjust for feedback and then see what we have. There are comments about keeping to one side of the mountain. Perhaps more competitive districts could be drawn?” Republican citizen commissioner Rick Harrell disagreed. “What I heard today is that the public wants logical, compact maps. That’s what we envisioned, but, unfortunately, Republicans benefit. That’s the way the population is placed. Drive time is irrelevant with Federal maps because we’re so far away from each other. I hope some will return to priorities for compact, logical maps.”
Democratic citizen commissioner James Abrenio pointed out that they need to define “political fairness.” “I’d like a more thorough legal analysis from both lawyers. A big mountain matters, but so does political fairness.” Sen. McDougle said, “When you look at maps, there are challenges. You either have say a couple hundred miles in a long stretch or more compact across mountains.” He also commented, “I hesitate to agree with Del. Simon, but I want to stay consistent. We’re not supposed to lock one party – either Democrats or Republicans – into a majority.
Co-chair Harris again asked for suggestions. Citizen commissioner Jose Feliciano asked the two map drawers, “What is stopping you from working together over the weekend on one map to bring to us on Monday? What is preventing you from collaborating? Some parts look identical.” Democratic attorney Crayton said, they have been directed not to have the map drawers negotiate. “At this stage, there are decision points for the Commission. In order to get to your interests, we need direction on “political fairness” and the question of the Valley or the other side of the mountain? We can fairly quickly execute what you tell us to do.”
Co-chair Harris asked for three questions from each of the legal teams on where they need direction. “The citizen members are thirsting for one map. It is driving us all crazy having multiple maps to reconcile.” Crayton responded (1) How should we deal with population loss in the West. Should we go over the mountain or up one side to the top of the state? (2) What does competitiveness mean? Could it be for some portion of the districts? How many Democrat vs Republican? Republican counsel Bryan Tyson also mentioned geography with the problem of choosing compactness or up one side of the state? Another of their questions was what is the key to ‘political competitiveness’? 5-5-1 or 6-5?” Tyson added, “If the goal is one map, you could easily take B2 and B7 and 3,4, and 1 would all fit together in a single map.”
Sen. McDougle, suggested, “At the risk of creating problems, some of these topics are intertwined. The bigger discussion is not just in the next 15 or 20 minutes, but for Monday after we hear from the public. Let’s save the final map for Monday.”
Co-chair Harris responded, “I don’t say the final map, just one map. Are Districts 3 and 4 still the area with the highest RPV? Both attorneys agreed that was the safest approach.” Harris then asked for thumbs up on an agreement to use Districts 3 and 4 as a starting point. She also brought up the issue of compactness, “communities of interest” and districts in mountain areas one more time for discussion.
Sen. McDougle said, “Congressional districts cover wider swaths of territory. Winchester and Highland don’t have anything to do with each other. For me, personally, compactness is important.”
Citizen commissioner Harrell agreed. “In terms of federal policies, identification with neighbors across the street don’t matter as much as travel time. Compactness is critical. RPV is primarily taken care of. Somebody has to give politically a little.”
Del. Simon suggested an experiment for Monday. “What would existing districts look like if adjusted just for population with as little change in other districts as possible. In the middle, it’s very competitive right now.” Sen. McDougle reminded him, “We started with a huge discussion about starting from scratch. Many felt existing maps were gerrymandered. If we determine what the end goal is politically, we can make the rest work.”
Co-chair Harris commiserated, “Co-chair Babichenko the meeting is yours on Monday. If there is somewhat of an agreement on the Voting Rights Act, you could go a few different ways on compactness, “communities of interest” and rural areas. The ‘big kahuna’ is competitiveness and undue favoring one party or the other. What is a reasonable goal for a Congressional district to reflect given population changes, recent election results? What is fair balance? This is the most sensitive direction we can give.”
Citizen commissioner Abrenio pointed out the issue is what does it mean to unduly favor a political party? “How are other commissions treating this? What does the public think?”
Sen. Barker suggested they look at recent history. There has been a lot of turnover. In 13-14 years Virginia went from a 8R-3D split in 2006 to 6D-5R in 2008; in 2010 a 8/3 or 7-4 split; in 2016 to 2018, 7-4. It could be helpful to encourage them to draw two or three competitive districts.
Republican counsel Tyson added, “As you’re thinking about political fairness, political scientists spent decades trying to measure it within the framework of redistricting. There are any number of methods to use to measure. Do you want competitive districts? At the end of the day, looking at election results and outcomes are probably better than other methods. There are academic ideas out there. The language is very open ended. What does the commission think?”
As the meeting drew to a close, Co-chair Harris asked whether the Commission would give the map drawers any direction. Democratic counsel Dr. Crayton then suggested a “Hail Mary proposal” for the purpose of getting public comment and moving forward. “Let’s agree about Districts 3 and 4 and we would accept for the moment John Morgan’s (Republican) District 4 and District 5 and “our” District 2 and District 7.” Republican counsel Bryan Tyson said he largely agreed. “If we want one map, use the three districts Zach drew in Northern Virginia, John’s Southwest; Zach’s 2 and 7, and agree on Districts 3 and 4. John’s District 1 could also work.” Dr. Crayton added, “It would be helpful to hear what people think about the configurations.” The combined map was posted Thursday evening on the Commission website as #364, C1 Statewide.