Supreme Court of Virginia Hearing on Redistricting Maps: Part I

On December 15, the Supreme Court of Virginia held the first of two virtual public hearings on the redistricting maps proposed by the Court’s Special Masters. All seven Justices attended and Chief Justice Donald Lemons announced that the two Special Masters, Sean P. Trende and Bernard N. Grofman were also watching.

Fifty-one individuals testified of the 64 persons who had registered.  The majority of  those who spoke pointed out problems with the fragmentation of central Virginia and the break-up of their “Communities of Interest (COIs).”  Many of their concerns were related to the movement of Congressional District 7 from the Richmond suburbs to Prince William and Stafford Counties in Northern Virginia.  Ruth Dale Tutton of Chesterfield spoke of the “vibrant community around Richmond” and added, the maps are “shattering districts with not one word about COIs.”

Western Chesterfield would move from the 7th Congressional District to the 5th. Western Henrico, also formerly in the 7th, would move to the 1st District.  The movement of CD7 also meant that Goochland and Louisa counties were placed in the 1st Congressional District. Speakers said their rural areas belong with the larger western Richmond suburbs and not with Coastal Virginia counties which make up the 1st. It also doesn’t meet the guidelines for compactness. They were also concerned that they will lose all current elected representatives and dividing the county will necessitate building relationships with multiple new representatives. 

In another region,  Jose Feliciano, former Virginia Redistricting Commission member from Spotsylvania Co. apologized that this hard work is falling to the Justices because of the failure of the Commission.  Speaking as a resident of Spotsylvania County, he said the County has nothing in common with Northern Virginia and doesn’t want to be part of it.  Matthew Kuser, also of northern Spotsylvania County said they have nothing in common with Prince William County and vote more like Louisa.

Several speakers (women and men) spoke of the disproportionate impact of the redistricting on women representatives. Melissa Dart of Henrico pointed out that of 11 Congressional Districts, the proposed maps weaken the three districts represented by women while supporting the eight districts represented by men.  Dr. Kim Gower, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said, “powerful women are being shoved to the side.”  She warned it could “become a huge social justice nightmare.”  Except for the concern about the possible loss of women as representatives, there were no other mentions of specific incumbents.

Monica Hutchinson and Harold Cothern, both Western Henrico residents, expressed concerns about unnecessarily shifting black voters from the 7th which could result in packing the 4th Congressional District.  Ms. Hutchinson also said it “is not OK to minimize Hispanic community voice and power.”  She pointed out that materials are still provided only in English with no support for language minorities.  Lois Maiden-McCray, speaking for the National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization (NBNRO), supported the proposed maps and applauded the transparency of the process.  “The proposed maps give minorities increased opportunity.”  She also pointed out that the NBNRO has Spanish redistricting training on their channel.

Charles Kromkowski of the University of Virginia Department of Politics advised there is a problem with the prison adjusted data as it does not include racial and ethnic data. “This could create problems with the Voting Rights Act.”  He also pointed out that the draft plans need “benchmarking” for comparison.

Testimony from Legislators – 

Senator Richard Stuart was the only Virginia legislator to speak at Wednesday’s hearing. He explained “the Northern Neck is a distinct geographic area with very distinct communities of interest  which face special challenges due to its isolation by the rivers and its rural nature. It is the Northernmost peninsula in Virginia on the Eastern side of Virginia bounded by two rivers and the Chesapeake Bay:  the Potomac on the North and the Rappahannock on the South, and yet, the Special Masters cut it into three different districts.”  He pointed out that “the true boundaries of the Northern Neck run from the top of Northumberland and Lancaster counties, where it meets the Chesapeake Bay all the way to Eastern Stafford County.”  

Jeffrey Wice, counsel to the House Democratic Caucus submitted two maps for consideration, one preferred version developed prior to the release of the Special Master’s maps and a second providing adjustments to the proposed SM maps which minimize “unnecessary changes to existing maps.”  NOTE:  These and other maps submitted by the public and others in response to the Special Master maps are available through the Court’s Redistricting Information page. 

Crystal Vanuch, Chair of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors and Supervisor for the Rock Hill District testified that urban development is restricted in western Stafford County because of its proximity to Quantico Marine Corps Base. By using Quantico and Aquia Creek as boundary lines for SD27 and HD64, they are putting a rural part of the county with Prince William County.  A solution would be to use Route 610 as the boundary line instead of Aquia Creek.

Gary Hodnett, mayor of Hurt, advocated for his community to remain with Pittsylvania County in Del. Adams’ District 48.

Roderick Williams, County Attorney for Frederick County, thanked the Special Masters for not splitting the county and asked for adjustments to the House District boundaries in order to conform with their new magisterial districts and precincts.

Testimony from College students – Russell Swartz of Henrico County opposed the breaking up of “communities of interest” in the Richmond area. A sophomore at Virginia Tech, he advocated for “Keep central Virginia strong!”  He felt the weakening of central Virginia is “killing youth engagement.” Madeline Doane of Campus Vote Project asked the Special Masters to not split college campuses in the proposed CD4 and CD1  She spoke of particular concerns about the House district around Virginia Commonwealth University.

Positive comments on the maps, Special Masters, and Justices – 

Cathy Lowe, former mayor of Abingdon appreciated that they kept Washington County and Bristol together.  The proposed Senate District 6  is good though it’s hard losing a House District due to population decline.

Carl Anderson of Hampton commended the Court, “Do not let the naysayers dissuade you from implementing outstanding maps.”  “Once you start tinkering around the edges, it never ends.”  He also said, “Your methods should be the new gold standard for other states.”

Josiah Toepfer of Falls Church thanked the Special Masters for a good job done.  He sees  improvement with the geographic boundaries significantly different.  He has concerns about female representation, but felt it is up to the voters. He also commented, “different views within a district are extremely important for our democratic society.”

Chris DeRosa, a long-time resident of Arlington and volunteer for fair maps, thanked the Justices and Special Masters for their work.  The Arlington maps make sense, are compact, and reflect communities of interest.  Transparency is a win for democracy.

Liz White, Director of OneVirginia2021, thanked the Justices and Special Masters for working hard to engage the public.  “This is the most transparent process Virginia has ever seen.” She also reminded the Special Masters of the metrics for success:  compact and competitive, accurately representing partisan balance, respect communities of interest and municipal boundaries, and provide opportunities for minority representation.

Dr. Kim Gower, VCU professor thanked the behind the scenes administrative staff as well.

As the hearing concluded at 3:37 p.m., Justice Lemons encouraged citizens who were unable to sign up to speak at the hearings to email the Court with their concerns at

All public comment, including written comments, must be submitted by 1:00 pm on December 20, 2021. 

 

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