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. Read more

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Map Drawers Post Draft Plans for State Legislative Districts

The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s map drawers’ draft proposals for all 140 state legislative districts were unveiled on September 18, in time for the commission to begin reviewing the drafts at its September 20 meeting. 

The meeting, which will be livestreamed, is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. and to include 2 1/2 hours of discussion about the drafts. The maps have been posted on the commission’s website in a format designed to encourage specific public comments. (The latest drafts are designated as Versions 100, 101, 102 and 103, with a version for each chamber prepared by each of its partisan map drawers.)  The current maps have also been posted, so that the public can also comment on what they do and don’t like about the current districts. 

The commission originally planned to roll out maps on a region-by-region basis, but after discussing drafts for Northern Virginia, its co-chairs decided to review proposals for the whole state. In addition to its current mechanisms for public comment, the commission plans to hold virtual hearings, focused on different parts of the state, once its initial work is done. 

The commission has additional time in which to prepare the new congressional district maps, and has not yet reviewed any drafts of those. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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Redistricting Commission Provides Directions, but Again Deadlocks on Race

The Virginia Redistricting Commission September 15 unanimously approved consensus instructions to its two map drawers on three items for which they had sought guidance, but continued to split along partisan lines regarding directions for creating minority-opportunity districts.

The votes came as the commission’s map makers each prepare their statewide maps of State Senate and House districts. That work is expected to be completed by September 17, giving the commission time to review the maps before its next meeting at 8 a.m. on Monday September 20.  By then, the commission will also have more details about public comments that have been made to date, which, it was told, number in the “thousands.” The comments are now being organized into a data base by the commission’s communications and outreach consultants; as of September 17, commissioners will be able to run reports to review comments directed to a particular issue or region. Those reports will then be made part of the public record. Additional improvements to the commission’s website are scheduled to be made in the coming weeks. The commission is scheduled to start virtual public hearings on its modified proposed maps on October 4.

The commission began its latest meeting by discussing consensus instructions prepared by its partisan counsels on questions related to defining political subdivisions, political neutrality and communities of interest. Ultimately, all three positions were approved with a few small changes, but not before commission members provided perspectives reflecting the differences in the urban and rural communities they represent or where they live.

New language to provide guidance on creating so-called “coalition districts,” was not proposed, it was explained, because the counsels could not reach agreement on their advice. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on impermissible “racial gerrymandering,” but has not yet reviewed a case involving coalition districts, where one or more minority groups live close together and support the same candidates, creating a potential majority. Lower circuit courts have split on the issue, but some of those decisions date from the 1990s. Republican commission members, in particular, worried that providing the instructions the Democrats sought would make the commission’s maps more vulnerable to legal challenge.

But Democratic members were not content to simply ignore the issue, and forced another vote. In the end, the practical outcome was the same as it had been two days before.  

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) began by noting that that issue had not been brought back for a review, and said, “It seems like we have decided that on the question of giving map drawers guidance on the Voting Rights Act, we are at a hopeless impasse.” Simon asked whether the vote should be revisited. “I don’t want to let it go by. A decision not to decide is a statement.  . . .”

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Redistricting Commission Bogs Down Over Voting Rights Criteria

After changing its agenda to provide more direction to its map makers, the Virginia Redistricting Commission could not reach consensus September 13 on instructions related to meeting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.

The commission listened to lengthy presentations by its partisan counsels on recent case law interpreting the act, but two motions, eventually suggested by Meg Lamb, a lawyer for the Division of Legislative Services, both narrowly failed. The counsels were instructed to work together with Lamb and the commission’s co-chairs on language that both sides could support to present at the commission’s September 15 meeting, beginning at 8 a.m.

The commission appeared to split over whether map makers should consider creating districts where members of more than one minority group could be measured as a coalition to create a “minority opportunity” district, one where more than 50 percent of the voting age population is a member of a minority group. Democratic counsel J. Gerald Hebert argued that the U.S. Supreme Court had not prohibited that practice. But the Republican counsels said while the practice might be permissible, the commission was not required to do so under the Voting Rights Act. Some commission members worried that instructing map makers to take that approach would make the commission’s maps more vulnerable to legal challenge, now that the high court has ruled that “racial gerrymandering” is impermissible. But after an initial motion failed, a second motion, changing “shall” to “may,” also failed, as some of the commission’s Democratic members seemed to view it as too weak.

Commission members received a 15-page memo from their counsels about the interpretation of the Voting Rights Act right before the meeting. On this and three other issues, the counsels were asked to work together to provide guidance they could agree on, and to do it by 5 p.m. the next day, to provide more time for commission members to review before they had  to vote. The other issues relate to prioritizing the political subdivisions that should be preserved, defining communities of interest and evaluating “political equity.”

The issue at the heart of the commission’s lengthiest discussion was quickly on display when time was made available at the end of meeting for virtual public comments by persons who had signed up earlier that morning. Three of the speakers commented on draft maps for Northern Virginia districts that had been proposed the week before, objecting that a Latinx community along Columbia Pike in Arlington and Fairfax counties had been split up in all of the proposals. Paul Berry, who chairs the Fairfax County Redistricting Commission and the Virginia Latino Advisory Board, also objected to combining the Reston and Herndon communities because their demographics and voting patterns were so different.

The speakers also complained that the way the plans were drawn, incumbent minority legislators had been drawn out of their districts. Erin Corbett, of the Virginia Citizen Engagement Table, noting the growth in the state’s Asian population over the past decade, also urged map makers to pay attention to the subsets of the minority population when they did their work so that those communities could be preserved.

 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

 

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Co-Chairs Shift Agenda to Give Map Makers Direction on Statewide Maps

In a surprising development, the co-chairs of the Virginia Redistricting Commission announced September 11 that they were changing their planned agenda for the commission’s September 13 meeting and to give the commission’s bi-partisan map makers more guidance to complete their task. The co-chairs said that the map makers have been told to present proposed maps for all 100 House of Delegate districts and the 40 Senate districts by the commission’s September 20 meeting. 

The commission had just considered draft maps for about one-third of the state’s districts, those located in Northern Virginia, and had planned to review drafts for the eastern part of the state and Tidewater on September 13. But in a statement the co-chairs issued two days later, they said, “Some progress on these statewide maps can be made by following statutory criteria, and our current guidance, but the map drawers need more specifics in order to complete the task.” 

“Given that our deadline is a little over four weeks away, the time for those details is now.” The statement said that the commission would be “considering and discussing the criteria and guidance that need further detail and will take votes on the specific direction and guidance to give the map drawers.” 

The co-chairs said that at the commission’s September 15 meeting, it would be “reviewing the public comment we have received and how it will inform any additional directions for the map drawers. So many of you have submitted comment through email or written letter, at a public meeting or hearing, or through the Commission’s interactive mapping and comment tool on the website, and we encourage you to continue to do so.” At the last meeting, Co-Chair Greta Harris said that within a week, the commission’s newly hired communications and outreach consultants were expected to have reviewed and organized comments to date. So far, the map drawers have not considered public comments, awaiting direction from the commission about what arguments should be considered. 

The co-chairs noted that because no new maps will be presented this week, they have added maps of the current districts to the commission’s new interactive tool so that the public can review existing maps and add comments. The co-chairs asked, “Where are districts, or parts of districts, that you like? Where are districts, or parts of districts, that you do not like? It is so helpful to hear not only what doesn’t work but what does.” The co-chairs said that comments submitted would be part of the discussion on September 15. After that, the co-chairs said, the map makers would present statewide maps on September 20, and the commission would spend “the next two weeks digging into those maps and building a single statewide map for the two sets of districts.” 

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Commission Continues Review of Draft Maps for Northern Virginia

The Virginia Redistricting Commission September 9 resumed its review of draft legislative maps from a larger area of Northern Virginia, but not without some sharp exchanges between some commission members about the treatment of incumbents.

At its next meeting at 1 p.m. on September 13, the commission’s two professional map drawers will put forward proposals for  the Tidewater and Eastern Shore. Map drawers are working their way around the state, adding a contiguous region each time. The commission plans to review a new region at the start of each week, with further discussion at a second meeting later in the week. Republican Co-Chair Mackenzie Babichenko, who ran this meeting, stressed that the commission shares draft maps with the public as soon as it can after it receives them. She urged the public to comment on what they don’t like, as well as what they do like about the proposals, and stressed that at this point, “We are not setting anything in stone.”

At more than one point in the meeting, Babichenko praised the drafts that the commission had received. “From my personal standpoint,” she said,  “everything that has been submitted looks better than what we have now.” She urged the public to “bear with us,” and said that “everyone is doing everything as fast as humanly possible.” She added that the commission was trying to be “as transparent as possible,” but that means “a less efficient process than if we were in a back room making decisions.”

Much of the meeting was spent reviewing expanded maps of Northern Virginia, one prepared by a Republican-affiliated team and the other affiliated with the Democrats. The commission’s new tool for reviewing draft maps can be reviewed here. The most recent updates are labeled “2,” with a proposal drawn by each of the professionals, one for the House of Delegates (HOD) and the other for the Senate (S). Comments on the maps can be left directly where they are viewed. The latest maps incorporate Loudoun and Clarke County to the west, and districts as far south as Stafford County, Fredericksburg and parts of Spotsylvania County. The two professionals did not address exactly the same counties, because they left open jurisdictions that they would need to combine with others to achieve the right population number. It was noted, however, that there were some districts for which their maps were very similar.

So far, the map-makers have not reviewed any of the public comments that have been submitted to the commission over its eight months of work. The commission’s Democratic co-chair, Greta Harris, said that that a week from now, its newly hired communications consultants are expected to finish their work of sifting through and organizing “minimally about a thousand comments.” The comments will be organized by region, and Harris said that if the commission receives a “high percentage” of comments for a particular concern, such as “keep Fredericksburg whole,” the commission would prioritize those concerns and give guidance to the map makers.

But Richard Harrell, a Republican citizen member from South Boston, expressed concern that the commission would  pay attention to the number and “velocity” of comments, a term Harris used. He said he believed he was supposed to use his “best judgment,” and opposed the idea that he was “supposed to follow a few people who are more energized than others.”

As the maps were discussed, arguments broke out over the use of incumbent addresses. In August, the commission formally adopted the criteria the map drawers were to use, specifying that political data “may” be reviewed “to ensure compliance” with its political neutrality provision and incumbent addresses “may” be considered as part of the drafting process. The Virginia Public Access Project and legislators themselves had reviewed the first round of draft maps and pointed out where incumbents had been placed in the same district. This is a particular issue in Northern Virginia, where incumbents live closer to each other because of population density. Commission members Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) and Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) would have to run against other incumbents under at least one of the proposals.

Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) asserted, “I think we should make sure our map makers are not including” incumbent addresses. The discussion grew more heated when it was learned that the team of Democratic map makers  had used information from Redistricting Data Hub, a non-partisan source of redistricting information, to understand where legislators lived. Ken Strasma, the Democratic map maker, said the organization makes the information available to the public, but requires users to register out of safety concerns. John Morgan, the Republican map maker, said he had not used such data.

Barker said the issue was not “insignificant,” because the information had been used “maliciously” in the past, when the party in power pitted incumbents against each other. He contended that when the Democrats drew the 2011 Senate boundaries, they made a point of not putting two senators in the same district, except when districts were combined because of lost population.

Democratic citizen member Sean Kumar responded, “Part of the reason that was happening in the past was because of gerrymandering.”

Babichenko achieved a consensus agreement that the commission might eventually check incumbent addresses, but not at this stage. Ken Strasma, the lead Democratic map maker, said, he was “agnostic” about incumbent addresses, and would follow that guidance. 

The professional map makers walked through their proposals, describing, in most cases, how they had tried not to break up jurisdictions, tried to follow traffic corridors, and tried to group communities that were similar in nature, such as suburban or rural. The Democratic map makers described some districts where certain minority groups were clustered. Because white residents of Northern Virginia tend to vote the same way minorities do, the area is not considered racially polarized, for voting rights purposes. In response to a question from Simon, the Democratic team said they had looked for opportunities to give such minorities a voice, even if they were not required to. Simon noted that information would be useful when having conversations about preserving “communities of interest,” a new criteria.

The map makers said they had also adhered to the commission’s instructions not to have a population deviation of plus or minus two percentage points; the law, however, is not that restrictive.

After the professionals’ maps were discussed, Barker presented an alternative for three Senate districts, Districts 6, 7 and 3. The draft maps had put the precinct where Barker lives into the district of fellow Democratic Sen. Chap Peterson. (Peterson currently represents 39 precincts in the proposed district, while Barker represents only two.) Barker proposed shifting two precincts among each of the three Senate districts he described to keep the incumbents separate.

Barker said that after the discussion at the previous meeting, he had talked with Amigo Wade, head of the Division of Legislative Services, about how he might prepare his own proposal, since individual commission members are not permitted to consult with the map makers. A DLS staff member was dispatched to work with Barker on his idea. Barker then detailed to the commission the reasons why he felt his approach made sense.

Kumar then asked, “I’m not sure why we are sharing this. It seems like this is a statement of self-interest. It seems like there should be a limit on speeches. If someone or someone else’s colleague doesn’t like it, we are catering” to them. “I think it’s a bad precedent to have a member submitting his own maps,” when the commission represents “8 million Virginians.”

Babichenko replied that Barker “is a citizen” who was permitted to put his ideas into a redistricting shape file and submit it, just as others could. John Morgan, the Republican map maker, noted that Barker had made some suggestions to an existing plan, and that that was helpful; he “provided a solution and did so in writing.”

Harris commented that every commission member was free to do that. “We are from different parts of the Commonwealth, we have different knowledge.” DLS staff members, she said, were prepared to help them. Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) noted that the commission had had good input from Northern Virginia and urged the staff to reach out to other parts of the state so that their residents would know when their maps were being discussed. Noting that no members of the public were in Richmond to make comments in person at that meeting, Simon and Harris urged the DLS staff to review the technical issues to see if a way could be found for members of the public to provide virtual comments when meetings were livestreamed.

At the end of the three-hour meeting, which Babichenko acknowledged was “intense,” McQuinn thanked the two co-chairs for their leadership. “You are doing a good job of herding cats,” she said, and praised the way they were working together. Her comments were greeted with applause.

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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Republican Sen. Bill Stanley Appointed to Redistricting Commission

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, has been named to the Virginia Redistricting Commission, replacing Sen. Steve Newman, R-Forest, who resigned suddenly on September 3. Stanley was appointed by Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, taking his seat just as the commission begins two intense months of hearings and meetings to prepare new legislative and congressional maps that reflect the results of the 2020 Census.

Stanley introduced himself at the commission’s September 9 meeting, after Republican Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko joked about whether she and Greta Harris, the Democratic co-chair, had “scared Newman away.” Stanley said in replacing Newman, he had “big shoes to fill,” but that he was exceptionally excited about “this citizen-driven commission” and that he hoped to join the members in creating “fair maps and good maps.” 

Stanley described how his district, the 22nd, covered portions of several counties and cities around Martinsville, and then said, “Thanks Sen. Barker,” a nod to Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, a fellow commission member who was chiefly responsible for drawing the Senate districts in the 2011 round of redistricting, when Democrats controlled that chamber. Stanley observed that when Barker drew his district initially, it had included two precincts in North Carolina.

The choice of Stanley helps address some concerns that had been raised about the geographic diversity of the commission after Marvin Gilliam, a Republican citizen member from Bristol, resigned his seat in July. Stanley represents an area that was farther to the west and south of Newman’s around Lynchburg. In the Senate, Stanley serves on the Judiciary and Local Government committees, among others. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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Republican Sen. Newman Resigns from Redistricting Commission

In a surprising move, Republican Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford) announced in a tweet September 3 that he will resign as a member of the Virginia Redistricting Commission, effective September 6. 

In his statement, Newman said, “I have enjoyed working with my colleagues on the Virginia Redistricting Commission for the past nine months. Approved by the voters last November, the bipartisan Commission is in its first year and I wish them well as they continue to navigate unchartered territory.”

Newman was one of two Republican senators appointed by Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment to serve on the 16-member commission. It will now be up to Norment to name a replacement from the Senate ranks. One of Norment’s citizen nominees, Marvin Gilliam, a coal mining executive from Bristol, resigned on July 6; he was replaced by Virginia Trost-Thornton who, like Newman, lives in Forest, VA. 

In recent weeks, Newman had expressed concern about whether the commission would be able to win the General Assembly’s approval for its maps. He had been a strong proponent of hiring separate partisan legal counsel for the commission, saying such an approach would give members of the General Assembly greater confidence in the maps. Some citizen members pushed back on that, and the commission recently voted to “start from scratch” when it drew its maps, rather than considering current boundaries. At a recent commission meeting, Newman had noted that he did not intend to run again when his term expires in 2023. 

Newman’s resignation comes at the very start of the commission’s 45-day window for preparing its maps, now the the Census data has been received. Over the next weeks, the commission has adopted an aggressive schedule to complete its work; the commission is also now required to achieve a quorum of both legislative and citizen members, now that restrictions related to meeting during the Covid-19 pandemic have been relaxed. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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Commission Receives First Set of Draft Maps for Northern Virginia

All 16 members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission got their first look at draft redistricting maps for Northern Virginia  in a virtual meeting September 2. The commission met for three hours, but could take no votes because members were not meeting face-to-face. 

The Commission has also now published a new full revised schedule of its future meetings and public hearings.  The Commission plans to meet twice a week in September and October, as it continues its review of draft maps of different regions.  Eight public hearings on the proposed maps will be held in early October, all virtually, with one additional hearing scheduled for October 22 before maps are sent to the General Assembly for approval.  

The first sets of draft maps were presented by map drawers  John Morgan (hired by the Republican legal team) and Ken Strasma (hired by the Democratic legal team). With advice from counsel, the co-chairs asked the map drawers to start in Northern Virginia because of the huge population there, and the fact that there are no  issues related to Racial Polarized Voting (RPV) in that region.  Morgan and Strasma each drafted a set of  maps for the House of Delegates and State Senate districts in Northern Virginia – specifically, Fairfax and Arlington Counties and the cities of Falls Church and Alexandria, plus a small part of Loudoun County.   With limited time to draft these maps, Strasma and Morgan each drew two sets of maps. The maps can be reviewed in the middle of this document, from pages 37-112.  

During the short discussion,  Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) commented that he favored the map drawn by Morgan, the Republican-appointed map drawer,  apologized for previous critical comments, and said the map was “perfect.”  Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) commented that he lives in the last house on the border of the district he represents, and may have been drawn out of “his district.” He said, “We need to give opportunities for people to get reelected.”  He indicated that a number of senators are considering retiring rather than running in new districts.

The map drawers indicated they plan to work together to produce one set of draft maps for each region in the future, rather than two sets.  Strasma said they preferred to work directionally across the state, rather than hop-scotching around, because each decision impacts adjacent counties, cities, and regions.  

Harris announced that plans call for two sets of regional maps to be prepared and released each Monday, with discussion by the Commission later that week.

Racial Polarized Voting (RPV) Analysis.  The Commission also heard a report on Racial Polarized Voting (RPV) prepared by Maxwell Palmer of Boston University and Benjamin Schneer of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School.  Palmer explained that RPV occurs in localities where the white voters, as a bloc, vote differently from African American or other minority voters.  Using data from five statewide elections in 2016-2018, Palmer and Schneer determined that statewide, a very high percentage of minority voters (Black, Asian, Hispanic) voted for Democratic candidates – over 90 percent of Asian and Black voters, and over 75 percent of Hispanic voters.  In the same five elections, fewer than 50 percent of white voters supported the Democratic candidates (a range of 36  percent to 44 percent).  “This is evidence of racially polarized voting.”  Palmer explained that RPV may occur without discriminatory intent.

Palmer then summarized their findings by looking at seven of the eight regions of the state, as defined by the  Weldon-Cooper Public Policy Center.  (They explained that they did not analyze the Southwest region because it has so few minority voters.)  All seven regions were  “uniformly blue, indicating that on average more than 70 percent of Minority voters supported the Democratic candidate. This is evidence that Minority voters in every region have clear candidates of choice, and are cohesive in supporting these candidates.”   When analyzing white voters in the seven regions, there were significant variations.  There was evidence of “very low levels of support for Democratic candidates in the Eastern and Southside regions, low levels of support in the Valley, West Central, and Hampton Roads regions, 40-50 percent support in the Central region, and 50-60 percent  support in Northern Virginia. This indicates that voters are not polarized in Northern Virginia, and only a small majority of White voters support Republican candidates in the Central region.”

Analysis continued by looking at the 11 Congressional districts.  In Districts  8 and 11 in Northern Virginia, a majority of white voters supported the Democratic candidates; thus there is no evidence that RPV exists in those two districts.  On the other hand, only 30-40 percent of white voters supported the Democratic candidates in Districts 1, 5, 6 and 7.  In Districts  2, 3, 4 and 10, “White voters are close to [evenly]  split; they support Democratic candidates with 40-50 percent of the vote.” 

In summary, looking at Congressional Districts 3, 4, 8, 10 and 11, where minorities comprise at least 40 percent of the voting population,  Palmer and Schneer found that in Districts 3, 4 and 11, there is evidence of  “somewhat racially polarized voting”.   

The  RPV report can be reviewed here.  

Report from the Communications Team.  The Commission also heard from the Communications team of  Esmel Meeks and Mindy Carlin of  Access Point Public Affairs.  Together they explained their plans to help the Commission organize public input and to conduct more extensive outreach to the public via social media, print media and email distribution.  They will be using a data management platform called Jambo, which will be available to members of the Commission, but will not be “public-facing”.  Reports can be generated that can be shared with the public.  The plan is to upload and sort the comments that have already been submitted into Jambo.  New comments will be submitted via a new portal.  Such submissions will have details such as the name of the commenters and where they live,  and their stakeholder type (e.g., individual, business, organization,or other).  Comments will be categorized according to subject and region. 

Meeks and Carlin said they will be improving the functionality of the commission’s website, and adding more explanatory material. They also hope to reach out to other state commissions, the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, plus organizations such as the Chambers of Commerce and the Urban League and NAACP.  Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) suggested working with faith organizations, day-care centers, and HBCUs Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Co-chair Harris asked Commission members to suggest additional names and organizations to the consultants if they had ideas. 

 

–Chris DeRosa, LWV-Arlington

 

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Citizens Detail Northern Virginia Gerrymandering to the Commission

The Virginia Redistricting Commission turned its attention to Northern Virginia July 27 as nearly 30 persons provided comments and, in some cases detailed maps, to guide the commission as it prepares to begin drawing its own legislative and congressional maps in just a matter of weeks.

It was no surprise that the commission’s hearing at George Mason University drew the biggest crowd to date (more than 50 persons) and the most commission members (eight, six Democrats and two Republicans) to hear about the impact of gerrymandering on a populous region that, under the approach the commission has adopted, stretches as far south as Fredericksburg and as far west as Front Royal. Participants sounded familiar themes—calling on the commission to draw maps that met statutory requirements and protected minorities, respected jurisdictional boundaries, and ignored incumbent addresses. Many of those who testified also demonstrated the anomalies of the districts where they live with personal testimonies and home-made maps.

Del. Vivian Watts, a Democrat from Fairfax County, arrived early enough to get the first spot on the list of public commenters, and urged the commission to avoid splitting precincts as redistricting plans had done in the past. Watts noted that she had survived two previous rounds of gerrymandering, after which she had to win the support of a new area in which at least 40 percent of the residents were new constituents. Watts urged the commission to “respect the local election boards,” and to use a more lenient population deviation standard to avoid dividing precincts. (For legislative districts, the population can deviate by as many as five percentage points, under the one person-one vote standard.)

Watts closed by saying she was speaking as a citizen, “because who knows whether I will stay in office?” (This November members of the House of Delegates will seek reelection for their existing districts; it is not yet known how soon the delegates will have to run for the redrawn districts. ) Watts was the first member of the General Assembly to make in-person comments at one of the commission’s public hearings; this one was attended by the two Democratic House of Delegate colleagues who sit on the commission. Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, a Democrat who represents the 34th Senate District, recently filed written comments with the commission, urging it to respect “the nodes” of Vienna and Fairfax City.

Phillip Thompson, executive director of the National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization and former president of the Loudoun County NAACP, noted the incongruities of the district in Leesburg where he lives, House District #10, which runs from Leesburg to Winchester. “We have nothing in common with the people in that part of the state,” he said. But then noting how few persons of color were attending the hearing, he called on the commission to do a better job of reaching out to minorities and listening to them. Thompson said that “we’re going to try and help with that” at the commission’s next in-person hearing in Richmond on August 3. The commission will begin its map-drawing soon after that, when it receives the final data from the 2020 Census in mid-August.

Deb Wake, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, recalled that the League had first begun paying attention to redistricting in the 1950s, and began advocating for fair maps as long ago as 1983. She highlighted the work that League members had done since 2010 to promote fair redistricting, including working for passage of the constitutional amendment that created the commission. “Virginia often, to our shame, led the country in suppressing the voices of women and minorities, especially Black people,” she said. “Fairly drawn maps are the first step in assuring representation to all voters in the Commonwealth.”

“District maps,” she added, “have been a tug-of-war between political parties and a power-grab from the voters who should have been the true holders of that power.” Wake praised the work of the Division of Legislative Services staff members who support the commission. “No one questions their integrity or intentions,” she said. She urged the commission to hold the partisan legal counsels it had employed “to a similar expectation and produce the best nonpartisan maps possible.”

In calling for the commission to “start from scratch” in drawing its maps, some speakers also suggested using as a starting point the maps that were prepared by college students in a 2011 map-drawing competition that the League co-sponsored or the maps that were proposed that same year by a bipartisan citizens advisory commission appointed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Paul Berry, the chairman of the 19-member Fairfax Redistricting Commission, charged with redrawing the boundaries of that county’s magisterial districts, urged the commissioners to stop by his commission’s first hearing, which was scheduled to start two hours after the Virginia commission’s began. Berry, who identified himself as a Reston resident, a front-line health-care worker and a Northam administration appointee on Latino issues, urged the commission to focus its work on equity issues and voting rights laws, as he said his own commission was trying to do.

Erin Corbett, redistricting manager for the Virginia Citizens Engagement Table, said many of the members of her coalition had expressed concern that the commission was not communicating in languages other than English, and not making use of American Sign Language interpreters. She said she had “heard a lot of negativity” about the commission’s work, and encouraged persons who felt that the commission was “set up to fail” to get more involved with the process. She stressed that her organization wanted to engage with persons from all parts of the state, and urged persons who were monitoring the hearing to sign up for her coalition’s updates at mapva.us/join.

While echoing many of the same broader themes, several speakers used their three minutes of testimony to highlight specific issues related to the districts where they lived.

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