Sunny Day for Virginia Redistricting!

Despite the early hour, many members of the public answered the call to show up and  “speak up” at the August 23 meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission.  Bolstered by even more comments and emails to the Commission website, their presence was acknowledged by commissioners who spoke strongly of the need to pay attention to “what the people want.”

The 8 a.m. in-person meeting began with an introduction to the map drawers recommended by the Republican and Democratic legal counsels.  Mathematician Moon Duchin of Tufts University was introduced as a third possible consultant to both sides.  Citizen commissioner James Abrenio asked for and received a commitment from the map drawers to be objective and serve the Commission as a whole, not individual parties.

Presiding Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko then called for a vote on the starting point for map drawing. The map drawers affirmed that starting from scratch would make no difference in meeting the timeline. Citizen commissioner Sean Kumar then pointed to the “overwhelming desire of the public to start from scratch” and moved to “direct the map drawers to start from a clean slate without regard to previous maps.”  The motion was seconded by citizen commissioner Brandon Hutchins.  Despite a substitute motion from Sen. George Barker to use both existing maps and maps from scratch, the four Democratic citizen members defended Kumar’s motion forcefully and the vote for starting from a clean slate passed on a bipartisan vote 12 – 4.

The Commission Co-chairs Babichenko and Greta Harris then reaffirmed the importance of transparency as the redistricting process moved forward.  There would be no behind the scenes partisan discussions with the legal counsels and map drawers.  Some “fundamental” disagreement was expressed by legislative members, but the Co-chairs emphasized that because “this is being done as the Committee of the Whole, we have to ensure all commissioners receive all information at the same time.”  The protocol will be that questions are asked and answered only through the Co-chairs or in public at a meeting.

There was a brief discussion of the video capability for the commissioners and the public as proposed maps are considered.  Meg Lamb of the Division of Legislative Services assured the commissioners “the technical people will be able to do this.” 

After 9 members of the public spoke, the Commission went into closed session for an update by legal counsel on a lawsuit filed against the Commission over plans to count prisoners at their last known address instead of the prisons where they’re incarcerated.

MORE COMPLETE DETAILS ON THE COMMISSION MEETING, MOTIONS, AND VOTES FOLLOW.

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Chris DeRosa Speaks for League at August 23 Commission Meeting

Good morning.

I’m Chris DeRosa.  This morning I am here, representing the League of Women Voters of Virginia, including our President, Deb Wake, and over 2200 members of the League.

We have worked hard for #Fair maps for many, many years, including helping to pass the Constitutional Amendment in November.  Our position is that we want and need fair maps for the benefit of the voters of Virginia.  Virginians want to elect representatives of their choice.

The biggest improvement in the process, we believe, is transparency – we are watching and listening to all your discussions and votes with great interest.  Pouring sunshine into the process is important.  We ask you to be wary of going around FOIA and transparency by allowing any decisions to be made behind closed doors.

Also, we fully support the establishment of other criteria for maps, especially the respect for  Communities of Interest(COI) and  the rights of ethnic, racial, and language minorities “to elect representatives of their choice”. 

Although we would have preferred a nonpartisan, all-citizen commission, we are hopeful that all of you on this commission, being balanced and bipartisan, will work for the benefit of all Virginians.

We hope that you are listening to the voices of the people.  We hope that you are reading all of the comments – nearly 400 written comments submitted by email, over 125 in the newest portal, (more than 3/4 of those submitted in the past 10 days).   League members have read all comments and note that a few threads have been woven throughout the meetings and hearings.    We’ve heard loudly and clearly that people want their communities kept together rather than split into 2 or more districts unnecessarily.  Reunite them into one cohesive community.

Secondly, another thread is that not one person who has submitted testimony has advised the Commissioners to begin with existing maps.  Virginians do not want this to happen. Thank you to those of you who put aside partisanship today with your vote.

These messages are from the people of Virginia.  Hear their voices.  Do what’s right for the people, not what’s right for the Ds or the Rs, not what’s right for partisan interests.  What’s fair for the people, not for politicians. 

You are concerned with “landing this plane” and maps getting approval from members of the General Assembly.  You might land the plane, but if the politicians are in the pilot seats and the cabin door is locked, you may not have the approval of the voters sitting in the passenger cabin.  We hope that you will keep this in mind:  draw maps that the residents of this Commonwealth will approve.  You should work for us.   And The League is here to work alongside with you.

 

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Decisions on Commission Structure and Operation: Part II

The early morning meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission on Tuesday, August 17 was to make decisions and take votes on aspects of the Commission structure and operations.  One noncontroversial vote had been taken the previous afternoon to establish a “start date” for the Commission’s work as August 26. The majority of the remaining decisions were voted on in a lengthy three-hour session presided over by Co-chair Greta Harris. 

Seven of the day’s motions related to the “Proposed Redistricting Guidelines and Criteria.” The first was to accept a legal counsel recommendation for rewording of the first sentence to “Plans drawn for the Commission must comply with the following guidelines and criteria in order of the priority listed below.” This motion passed 13 – 1 with citizen commissioner Sean Kumar abstaining.  (Due to a work commitment, Kumar was available for only a portion of the meeting and votes.)

The second motion established the population deviation as “Each legislative district should be drawn to be as equal as practicable with total population variances minimized with a target of plus or minus 2% while considering other principles listed below.”  This motion was approved unanimously, 16 – 0.

3.c.i.b. in the guidance document reads “The integrity and priority of existing political subdivisions should be preserved to the extent possible by avoiding unnecessary divisions of those subdivisions.” Several commissioners spoke about hearing Virginians call for putting their communities back together. There was some opposition, but the motion to keep this provision passed 12 – 4.

The section on “Political Neutrality 4.B” was more controversial.  It read “Commission Guidance:  Maps shall not favor or disfavor any political party.  [The Commission may review political data after the drafting of a plan is complete to ensure compliance with this political neutrality provision and will/will not consider incumbent addresses as part of the drafting process.]”  A substitute motion that allows incumbent addresses to be considered as part of the drafting process was carried on a vote of 9 – 6.  Another substitute motion by Del. Simon to insert “only” in front of “after the drafting of a plan is complete,” failed 4-11.  Sen. Barker’s motion to strike “after the drafting of a plan is complete carried
11 – 4.  This would allow for consideration of political data in addition to incumbent addresses.

Consideration of the “Proposed Redistricting Guidelines and Criteria” concluded with a motion to accept the entire document as amended.  This motion carried 9 – 5 with Kumar abstaining.

Del. Simon then moved to hire the University of Richmond’s Spatial Analysis Lab as the single map drawer. Despite a lengthy debate, that motion failed on a tie vote 8 – 8.  As a result, Co-chair Harris directed legal counsel to agree on a process of how to move forward with the two partisan map drawers they had previously identified.

The final vote of the day was also controversial.  This was on a motion to accept the proposed subcommittee structure which is balanced with eight commissioners each evenly divided between political parties, House and Senate, and citizens and legislators.  One subcommittee would work on the House map and another on the Senate map.  The motion failed 7 – 8 and all commissioners will now work together on the maps.

Because the time was approaching 11 a.m. and there were concerns about losing a quorum, the question about where to start the maps was put on the agenda for Monday, August 23. The agenda for that date will also include working together to craft a work plan and schedule.

Public Comment –

Liz White of OneVirginia2021: “Based on decisions today, I would encourage that if you hire two map drawers they work in concert on a single set of maps, rather than two sets of maps to be ‘mooshed’ together. I would encourage you to continue to move along a path where all are involved in the map drawing process.  Thank you for your work and your decisions.”

Phil Thompson of the National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization (NBNRO):
“I wasn’t going to speak until the last bit.  You set yourselves up when you hired two sets of counsel.  You put yourselves in this mess!  I took a lot of heat in supporting the amendment. Now there are two different map drawers.  Hurry up so SCoVA can hire their map drawers.  Lots of time and money to be spent.  Sad for the people of Virginia!”

MORE COMPLETE DETAILS ON THE COMMISSION MEETING, MOTIONS, AND VOTES FOLLOW

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Decisions on Commission Structure and Operation: Part I

The full Virginia Redistricting Commission met Monday afternoon, August 16 for the first of two meetings to make decisions on the structure and operation of the Commission.  Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko presided over a packed agenda with debate on critical decisions which would be voted on early Tuesday morning after time overnight to consider the options.  

At the beginning, an exception for one vote was allowed by the Co-chairs when the commissioners appeared to reach consensus on setting the “start date” for the Commission’s work as August 26.  The timeline didn’t allow for further votes, however, as what followed was lengthy discussion of revisions to the “Proposed Redistricting Guidelines and Criteria.” This document was first offered by legal counsel at the August 3 meeting.  Questions were raised about segments relating to “Political Neutrality” and use of incumbent addresses; “Population Equality” including percent deviation; and keeping cities and counties intact under “Communities of Interest.”  Commissioners also considered the issue of hiring map drawers, whether to start with current or blank maps, and how to organize their work through subcommittees.

As the first item on the agenda, citizen commissioner James Abrenio, co-chair of the Public Engagement Subcommittee announced that negotiations had been finalized for Communication and Outreach consultants.   Meeks Consulting is a Virginia Beach public relations and outreach firm owned by Esmel Meeks.  Access Point, a communications and public relations firm, is also based in Virginia Beach and is owned by Michael and Mindy Carlin.  Both came online to greet the Commission and Meeks said his company’s goal overall is to maximize attendance at upcoming meetings and leverage digital and print media to encourage engagement.  Mindy Carlin indicated her areas of focus are to provide data management to help format and organize public comments in a way that can be helpful to Commissioners.  She confirmed that the data platform has the capacity to accept maps from the public who may want to draft their own maps and they will be organizing both public comments that have been received to date and in the future. They will also be providing support for live streaming with opportunities for messaging and ensuring language requirements are met.

Senator George Barker (D – Alexandria) then initiated a discussion of the Commission’s timeline for submission of redistricting maps to the General Assembly.  According to the Constitutional Amendment, the “receipt date” would establish the 45 days for the Commission to submit House and Senate maps and 60 days to submit Congressional maps.  A table prepared by the Division of Legislative Services staff laid out three scenarios for what dates could be considered as the “Date of Census Data Receipt” – August 12 (date of release of data in ”legacy format” from the Census Bureau); or August 26 (date the Commission expects the data to be usable for map drawing after adjustment for the prison population and technical adjustments); or September 30 (date of final release of data from the Census Bureau.)  If August 12, House and Senate maps would be due to the General Assembly by September 26; if August 26, the deadline would be October 10; and if September 30 (the date for full release of Census data), the maps would be due by November 14.

The commissioners questioned whether it would be legally acceptable to consider the date of “receipt of Census data” as when usable data is actually available?  If the “receipt date” could be determined to be August 26, all the data could be formatted including the adjustments for the prison population.  It would also be possible to block out dates going forward with the goal of meeting the body of work before the November election.  “Scheduling dates to block off time for fair maps is challenging.”

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Valley Residents Continue Call for Fair Maps and Respect for Communities

Seven Virginians spoke to the Commission at its 8th and final public hearing before the census arrives.  The virtual hearing on Thursday, August 5, at 6 pm, was attended by six Commissioners – 4 citizen Commissioners and 2 Legislator members.  At the request of Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko, Delegate Marcus Simon presided over the hearing.

Janet Trettner of Keezletown, VA (Rockingham County) was first to speak.  Representing the Rockingham County Democratic Committee (RCDC), she described Rockingham County as “nestled solidly in the Shenandoah Valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains to the East and West Virginia to the west.”  She told Commissioners that Rockingham County has two “communities of interest.”  One, in the lower part of the county, is urban-suburban with manufacturing, education, and retail “industries,” including three universities and colleges.  The other more rural agricultural region is in the western and upper portions of the county.  This region of poultry, livestock and produce farming has been identified by USDA as the leading agricultural area of the state of Virginia.

Trettner asked the Commission to consider these two COIs in Rockingham County and to “use the Blue Ridge Mts as a natural boundary of these COIs rather than extend over the mountains.”   Trettner also made a unique request of the Commission as it draws the maps:  she recommended that they “rename the House, Senate, and Congressional districts to eliminate redundancy.”  She explained that the current numbering system results in three sets of districts being identified as #1, 3 more as #2, etc., through #11.  When identified by number only, “it’s hard to know if it’s a House, Senate, or Congressional District.”  Furthermore, two districts have the same name (HD26 and SD 26).  “Give each district a distinct name to eliminate this confusion.”

Three speakers from Shenandoah County called for district maps that makes sense for their county.  Kyle Gutshall stated that “it’s clear where myself and many other voters stand when it comes to new districts. This commission has obligations to Virginians, not powerful politicians.  That’s why we voted for this commission in November.”  His district stretches to DC and he “shouldn’t have to travel 50 or 100 miles to see my representative. My representative should be local to my neighbors and me.  We need to allow strong and clear voices without being split down the middle.  My vote should    count just as much as any other vote in the state of Virginia.” 

Brandi Sheetz of Woodstock echoed the request to “Keep Virginia voters in mind, and not politicians, when new maps are drawn.  Current districts see our communities split up and limit the power of our local voices. Keep neighbors and neighborhoods together and not split them across waterways just to benefit politicians.  Let Northern Virginia and Richmond folks have their own districts, but don’t force me to vote with them when I don’t live near them.” 

Travis Cooper reminded the commission that its responsibility is to “draw new districts that are fair.”  District maps have “crazy lines that currently exist”.  He wants “new districts that are fair, easy to understand and not partisan.   I voted for the Redistricting Amendment to make sure folks in Richmond aren’t running the show.” He urges the Commission to “draw a clean map and keep my county together.  I want to be able to look at my district and easily see what district I’m in and who represents me. I want to look at my district and see that it makes sense.”  Maps “should not be made to benefit any one party; they should be made to benefit Virginia voters as a whole.”

Niro Rasanayagam has lived and paid taxes in Lynchburg for 18 years.  “Lynchburg’s social, cultural, and economic interests are different from those of more rural districts to which we have somewhat unnaturally been attached.”  She regrets that “rural districts dominate the portfolio” of her representatives and,  end up “diluting our community clout, and diminishing our voice in Richmond.”  One example of unique issues: “part of the city of Lynchburg has a significantly higher poverty rate, sometimes double that of neighboring rural counties.”  Elected officials “must work for and serve this higher needs population.”  “Having four districts instead of two is confusing to voters and is impractical.   Even the savviest voters have a hard time keeping track of who their representatives are, and what district they’re in. This leads to voter confusion and frustration.  Right now, I’m feeling a little powerless.” She also notes that she is very interested in “downtown revitalization but have no say because my delegate does not cover downtown Lynchburg.”  Echoing the demands of other Lynchburg speakers at earlier hearings, she concludes, “Please restore the city of Lynchburg into a single COI with a single Delegate district and a single Senate district.”

Student Jack Tueting described the problems his fellow students in Albemarle County face.  The students at his high school live in four different House of Delegates districts.  “Many seniors can vote, but it doesn’t make sense that they vote in different areas from where they go to school.”  He recommended that Albemarle County be divided into two House of Delegates districts that would meet population requirements, while keeping the communities of interest within the county intact. “I hope that the Commission would consider local boundaries of supervisor districts and school districts so that communities are not fractured and can maintain their voice in voting.”

Erin Corbett /VCET (VA Civic Engagement Table) mentioned that some of her participants were having difficulty with the soundfeed on the livestream.  She went on to ask the Commission “to really think through the process with which they will facilitate feedback in September.  I know this is going to be a lot of quickly moving pieces once (census) arrives.       Be really intentional on how you will facilitate feedback on maps and how you will publicize that facilitation…  so those interested parties can plan accordingly.”

— Chris DeRosa, LWV-Arlington

 

 

 

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“Double Header” for Commissioners as They Prepare for Census Release

Scheduling the Tuesday August 3 Virginia Redistricting Commission meeting proved difficult as legislator members were also called to be at the Special Session of the General Assembly which began Monday.  In addition, the in-person public hearing for the “Central Region” was scheduled for 6 p.m. to follow the commission meeting.  A flip in times to move the meeting after the hearing allowed the commissioners to move ahead with organizing for the August 16 release of census data.

The evening began with updates on the building of the commission’s “consultancy team”– hiring of legal counsel, the communications and outreach consultant, a racially polarized voting (RPV) analyst, and the search for map drawers. The commission then moved forward with consideration of a work plan and schedule for after the census data arrives; proposed guidelines and prioritization of criteria; and the legal counsel recommendation to not “start from scratch.” There was also a “robust dialogue” on the make-up of subcommittees assigned to work on the maps.

Co-chair Greta Harris, who chaired the evening meeting, acknowledged the public comments about the importance of moving quickly to hire a communications and outreach consultant.  Brooks Braun of the Division of Legislative Services (DLS) reported that they would be meeting tomorrow (Wednesday) to negotiate a contract.

Harris further announced that the legal counsels have been hired – two Democratic leaning firms working together,  J. Gerald Hebert and Crimcard Consulting Services, and two Republican leaning firms, Schaerr Jaffe and Taylor English.  The two co-chairs (Harris and Mackenzie Babichenko) have met with the firms several times, and said all have extensive redistricting experience around the country and are very well balanced.  Harris explained, “Before we had to shuffle things around, we were hoping to have representatives from legal counsel with us.  Because we weren’t sure what time or even if this full commission meeting was going to happen today, we asked them not to make the drive here.”

The four legal teams have made several recommendations, including hiring a racially polarized voting analyst (RPV), Professor Max Palmer of Boston University, to ensure the commission is  staying within the spirit and requirements of the Voting Rights Act.  The co-chairs also asked legal counsel to identify nonpartisan map drawers that have capacity to help with drawing the state House and Senate lines.  (There will be more time and internal capacity with DLS available to work on the Congressional lines.)  Co-chair Babichenko added, “We are having both counsel look into the possibility of finding a nonpartisan person and a vote tonight would be premature until we know the answer to that question.”

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) asked what the problem was with using DLS staff to help draw Congressional maps. Babichenko said they had reached out to DLS, but that the staff member would be unable to do everything in the allotted time. She said DLS needs  more assistance, and they were seeking at least two people to assist on these maps.

Harris emphasized, “All four legal counsel strongly encouraged the commission to gain map drawing expertise.”  Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria) reminded commission members that he had been involved in drawing maps for the Senate in 2011 and said it was important to have map drawers who understand Virginia. He added that commission members must be heavily involved in drawing the maps with support from map drawers.  Harris assured him that the law firms have been asked to find a nonpartisan person who knows Virginia to work in partnership with commission members. “They are not doing that on their own.” 

Citizen commissioner Brandon Hutchins of Virginia Beach asked, “When we get the maps back, are the commissioners going to be able to share that with citizens?” Harris replied, “Yes.  One of our tenets is transparency.”

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Black Voices Heard at August 3 Public Hearing on Central Region

The fourth and last in-person public hearing focused on the Central Region and was held at the Pocahontas Building in Richmond on Tuesday, August 3.  A variety of Virginians spoke to the Commission – 13 of the 16 Commissioners were in attendance, including the newest Commissioner, Virginia Trost-Thornton.  In addition, two Commissioners attended virtually.

During the hour-long public hearing, 17 speakers addressed the Commission in person, while six more spoke virtually.    

Chris DeRosa (Arlington) spoke first, setting the tone of the hearing by sharing quotes compiled by Sara Fitzgerald (Falls Church) and Candace Butler (Fairfax).  The quotes were from the applications submitted by three of the citizen Commissioners, both Republican and Democrat.  One Commissioner wrote of his belief that extreme partisan gerrymandering contributed significantly to “increasing political polarization”, and that “artificially creating districts in a convoluted and discriminating manner avoids the operation of natural communities of interest, and, in many cases, prevents minorities from ever having an effective voice.”  Another Commissioner wrote, “I want. . . to ensure that every voice and every vote counts and is not negated by gerrymandered lines that silence ideas and concerns”, while a third wrote, “Redistricting to ensure fair and representative districts is fundamental to good government and trusted institutions in our Commonwealth. The Commission will help to draw the foundation of representative government in Virginia for the next decade.”  With that inspiration, the public hearings continued. 

This was the first public hearing which featured several speakers from the black and brown communities.  Several members of the NBNRO (National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization), led by Phil Thompson and Mike Futrell, addressed the Commission.  Thompson stated that “Black and minority communities matter.”  He and Futrell cited the early opposition from the Legislative Black Caucus which doubted that this process and this commission could truly represent the interests of black and minority voters.  Futrell, a former Delegate from Prince William County, recalled receiving the advice to “vote your conscience, vote your district, and then worry about voting your party.”  He recalled how, at first, there were few applicants, that “nobody looked like us” for the citizen commissioner seats, that the applicants didn’t represent the black and brown community.  Only after outreach efforts of the NBNRO, One Virginia 2021, and the League of Women Voters, did the number of applicants increase to more than 1,200.  “Well, we have a seat at the table, now it’s time to start setting the menu.”  He admonished the Commission to reach more Virginians.  He’s frustrated that “the only people that look like me coming to these events are the ones we’re reaching out. When you draw those lines, I want you to see the faces of the people that are going to be impacted by the decisions that you make.” “It’s not about Democrats or Republicans.  Do what’s best for the Commonwealth for Virginia.”  “Make sure that every voice is heard in this process.” 

  • Katina Moss emphasized that it is the firm belief of NBNRO “that fair districts empower black and brown districts.” “Redistricting therefore is politics. … How will this bipartisan commission support people over party?  After all, isn’t politics supposed to serve the people?”
  • Taorise Marks, a military veteran and leader in the Chesterfield County NAACP, brought his young son, Asiris, with him. He voted for the Constitutional Amendment but would have liked to have seen more people that look like him on the Commission. He wanted to see and hear from the Kroger baggers, sanitation workers, some of our everyday people, and said their “voices continue to be muted.” He said that in 10 years, Asiris will be able to vote.  “He’s going to be standing tall to represent this country proudly.  Ensure his sacrifice matters, his vote matters.  All we want is fairness. Fairness in drawing the maps.  Fairness for the people who are not represented here today. And especially for black and brown voices.” 
  • Lois McCray supported all the previous speakers and asked that veterans’ interests be addressed. “Black lives matter.  Brown lives matter.  Your lives matter.”  “We don’t want anything more than anybody else. We want maps to be drawn fairly so we can all live in a better world and not feel that we are being mistreated.  Draw fair lines so there can be fair maps and fair voting and we can all sleep peacefully at night.  Like my mom always says, “It’s just nice to be nice.”

Liz White, director of One Virginia 2021 and a Chesterfield County resident, appealed to the public to communicate with the Commission.  She reminded all that “Communities of Interest (COIs) are not only legally mandated, but also best practice nationwide.”  She noted that half of the comments have centered around COIs, especially cities and towns. She spoke to Virginians and encouraged them to participate in this process.  “No one knows your community like you.  They can’t honor a COI if they don’t know about it.  Please make sure your community is part of this conversation.  There are a variety of ways on the One Virginia 2021 website to make it as easy as possible.  This is an unprecedented space for the public, for us.  Fill that space – let the Commissioners know.”

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Bristol Chamber of Commerce Urges Strong Representation for Southwest Virginia

Beth Rhinehart, President and CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, testified at the July 29 hearing of the Virginia Redistricting Commission that focused on the Southwest region.  “Strong representation of southwest Virginia in the General Assembly and Congress is truly essential to the future of our region especially during a time when many of our citizens feel we are more closely aligned with our four neighboring states than our own. To mitigate this affect we should strive to keep ‘communities of interest’ together.”

Rhinehart spoke of the I-81 corridor as the “essential link that ties their “community of interest” together through daily flow of goods, services, and people.” She also referred to Routes 19, 460 and 48 through the coal field region.  “Many localities have been working together to strengthen partnerships and formed regional Industrial Development Authorities (IDAs). Keeping them together within districts will continue to help localities united among common goals and leverage shared resources to expand opportunities.”  (The Bristol Chamber of Commerce represents Bristol, Virginia; Bristol, Tennessee; and surrounding counties.)

The second speaker was Kyle Barnes from Princeton, New Jersey, Executive Director of Representable, which was developed in partnership with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.  Representable has been working with the League of Women Voters and OneVirginia2021 to hold events and assist citizens in drawing maps of their communities.  The Representable database now includes over 100 maps with accompanying testimony from communities across the state of Virginia and is growing.  The commissioners were invited to view the maps at representable.org/map/va

(The map platform is also available to the public free of charge.)  Barnes further implored the Commission to “make a renewed effort and commitment to engaging the great diversity of communities across the state to share about their community of interest.”  As the hearing was brought to a close, citizen commissioner James Abrenio mentioned a problem with the Representable link.  (It is correct, however, and the Commission was provided with further assistance.)

Rhinehart and Barnes were, unfortunately, the only two persons providing testimony at the July 29 hearing.  Two other persons pre-registered but did not appear to speak.  The Southwest region, as defined by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, includes the Counties of Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, and Wise and the Cities of Bristol, Galax, and Norton.

Citizen Co-chair Greta Harris presided at this virtual hearing.  Other citizens present were Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko, James Abrenio, Richard Harrell, Brandon Hutchins, and Sean Kumar.  Legislator commissioners attending were Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville), Sen. Steve Newman (R-Forest), Del. Margaret Ransone (R-Kinsale), and Del Marcus Simon (D- Falls Church).

Co-chair Harris urged the commissioners to “Eat your Wheaties” in preparation for a full day on Tuesday, August 3.  The day will include a full Commission meeting at 4 p.m. followed by an in-person public hearing at 6 p.m.  focusing on the Central region.  The day is also a Special Session of the General Assembly for the legislators.  Full details for these meetings are available on the Commission’s website.

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Commission Testimony by Deb Wake, President, League of Women Voters of Virginia

Deb Wake, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, testified at the Virginia Redistricting Commission hearing for the Northern Virginia region held July 27 at George Mason University. Deb’s testimony on behalf of the League –  

“Good afternoon members of the Redistricting Commission. I’m Deb Wake, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia. I represent nearly 2200 members and 14 Leagues across the state. We are a grassroots organization with no paid staff at the local or state level but are staffed by volunteers committed to a more just democracy. Just hours after this hearing, our members will have produced and uploaded a blog to update readers on the process of the commission. Some members will also participate in today’s hearing, as they have in many hearings, as private citizens who are actively participating in our democracy.
The League began to pay attention to redistricting back in the 1950s and began to advocate in 1983 when our members supported a more equitable map-drawing process. Ten years ago, we partnered with law professor Rebecca Green, at William & Mary, to sponsor a contest for student-drawn maps to show that it is possible to produce maps that give better representation to voters than the gerrymandered maps put forward by whichever majority party had the privilege to draw the new lines. Our members knocked on doors, sent postcards, and contacted their legislators to pass the amendment creating a citizen-led redistricting commission. We thank you for your commitment to creating maps that lift up the voices of diverse communities and puts the power back into the hands of voters. Virginia often, to our shame, led the country in suppressing the voices of women and minorities, especially Black people. Fairly drawn maps are the first step in assuring representation to all voters in the Commonwealth.
District maps 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. We urge the commission to start fresh when drawing the maps. Now is the best opportunity to start with a level playing field and give the highest priority to communities of interest who have often been ignored. We challenge commissioners to work to keep voter-representation at the fore and not addresses of incumbent legislators.
DLS staff support you every day and work tirelessly when the general assembly is in session. No one questions their integrity or intentions. We urge you to hold the partisan firms you have employed to a similar expectation and produce the best nonpartisan maps possible.
Thank you again for your service to voters in the Commonwealth.”

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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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