The new bi-partisan Virginia Redistricting Commission held its first meeting January 21, and promptly agreed to elect its two women citizen members, one from each party’s contingent, to serve as co-chairs.
The constitutional amendment that was approved in November had specified that a citizen member be elected as chair. But after the members introduced themselves, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, moved that a co-chair be nominated from each party, and Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who drafted the original version of the amendment, seconded his motion. After Division of Legislative Services staff advised a citizen member that the commission could do that, the commission voted unanimously to elect Greta Harris, a Democratic member from Richmond, and Mackenzie Babichenko, a Republican member from Mechanicsville, as co-chairs. The commission agreed that the co-chairs would alternate leadership of the commission’s meetings, and work together with the DLS staff to prepare future agendas. Harris, 69, is CEO of the non-profit Better Housing Coalition; Babichenko, 39, is an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Hanover County.
Meg Lamb, an attorney for DLS, reported that it was not clear when the Commonwealth would receive the final U.S. Census data that would enable it to complete its work. Barker said a member of President Biden’s transition team had recently contacted him to discuss the situation because Virginia—and New Jersey—normally would have to redraw their maps this year for legislative elections. Barker said the Virginia Department of Elections had said it could hold primaries for statewide races in June and as late as August 24 for the House of Delegates and still meet statutory deadlines for elections.
But Barker and Newman suggested that in the meantime the commission could begin its work using preliminary data. Barker said population shifts in the state had not been as dramatic as in the recent past. There has been some population growth in the northern part of the state and around Fredericksburg, he noted, with a loss of population in the South. By March, the nationwide reapportionment of congressional seats is expected to be completed, determining how many congressional districts Virginia will have.
Some of the citizen members requested additional guidance regarding transparency requirements and redistricting in general. Lamb said they would all receive copies of the so-called National Conference of State Legislatures “Red Book” on redistricting. (The book is available for purchase by the public through the NCSL website. )
The DLS staff explained that the commission would be able to hire attorneys and consultants, as necessary, to help with its work. It was noted that before the constitutional amendment passed, the General Assembly conducted a procurement and chose the software package Citygate GIS to support its work. Lamb said DLS could further explore other packages that might be publicly available. A number of questions regarding prospective timetables and process will be taken up at future meetings.
At the opening of the meeting, the members introduced themselves. Several of the citizens expressed their “excitement” over being involved. Most said they had spent most of their lives in the state, some residing in different regions over their lifetimes. Following the appointment of the eight citizen members on January 6, concerns were raised about two of the appointees over campaign contributions and comments published on social media. Those issues, however, were not revisited by the commission members at their meeting.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, acknowledged that he had opposed the constitutional amendment, but said he was “committed to doing our best to make it work.” He said he hoped his concerns would turn out to be wrong. Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, did not comment on her vote against the amendment, but noted that she was an ordained minister, and that she might “pause for a prayer” if she felt the commission would benefit.
A handful of Virginia residents had indicated in advance of the meeting that they wanted to speak, and they were allotted up to two minutes each. One, Suzanne Chambers, a member of NAACP branch 7045, described how Amherst County, where she lived, had been negatively impacted by gerrymandering, Jeff Jacobs of Herndon expressed concern that his fast-growing area was not represented on the commission. He and Gary Page of Farmville raised questions related to software and citizen input. Another member of the public who had trouble using the Zoom platform was asked to submit her comments in writing instead.
–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-VA, Falls Church