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.