Southwest Virginians Speak First at Public Hearings!

A dozen citizens signed on to this morning’s virtual public hearing on proposed General Assembly maps for southwest Virginia. Republican and Democratic map drawers hired by the commission were able to produce maps for this part of the state that largely agree on district lines. Current Republican State Senator David Suetterlein of District 19 (representing Floyd County, Salem City, and parts of Bedford, Carroll, Franklin, Montgomery, Roanoke, and Wythe Counties) started off the public comments with a critique of current proposed map B4 that puts his neighborhood in suburban Roanoke County just outside the city of Roanoke into a proposed district that includes more rural counties to the west and north. The vice-chair of the state Libertarian Party spoke in favor of the proposed districts including Bedford County with Botetourt County, and suggested combining Roanoke City and Roanoke County to produce a more competitive district.

Moving west, two speakers from Montgomery County advocated for a community of interest that includes the town of Blacksburg, city of Radford, and the I-81 corridor to the city of Roanoke, noting that Virginia Tech, Radford University, and the Carilion Clinic are part of an economic subregion with common employment and transportation interests. Several citizens spoke positively of the proposed districts west of Wytheville into the far southwest portions of the Commonwealth. This part of the state has seen population decline relative to the rest of the commonwealth and thus is losing a seat in the House of Delegates. Speakers included the president of Southwest Virginia Community College, a member of the Russell County Industrial Development Authority, the commonwealth attorney for Wise County, a former mayor of Abingdon, the president of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the Russell County Board of Supervisors. They spoke in favor of proposed maps that respect county lines, transportation corridors, and planning districts.

Speakers noted that people in southwest Virginia often feel ignored by the more populous regions of the state and asked that the commission maintain the tradition of starting the numbering of House districts from west to east. Erin Corbett of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table asked whether the commission would be providing translation services for upcoming hearings to facilitate increased participation. Just a few hours later, the Commission announced it would be offering Spanish translation services for those who would like to contact them at

A recording of the virtual public hearing for the Southwest region should be available soon through the Virginia Redistricting Commission YouTube Channel

LWV-VA Observer Corps –
Chris DeRosa, LWV-ARL
Peggy Layne, LWV-MC

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No consensus on maps . . . Citizen comment extremely important!

The Virginia Redistricting Commission returned Saturday, October 2 for one final opportunity to put together “something” for the public to comment on at the hearings which are to begin Monday.  Presiding Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko stressed it will be extremely important for the public to comment.  By lunchtime, it was apparent that reaching consensus on one map each for the House and Senate was a “bar too high.” Babichenko cautioned, “because we agree on pieces does not mean the entire map is consensus.  These are working maps and they don’t represent a consensus. 

As the commissioners reviewed House maps A6 and B6, complaints continued about the difficulty in comparing statistics because some districts cross “regions”.  This was resolved after lunch with an analysis prepared by the Division of Legislative Services (DLS).    

There was also differing advice from the Democratic and Republican lawyers on requirements for using “opportunity districts” to ensure African Americans are able to elect candidates of their choice.  Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), speaking for the benefits of “opportunity districts”, warned that packing can dilute African American voting strength. “We don’t have to put a bunch of black folks in a district to get that opportunity.”  Co-chair Greta Harris saw independent analysis of political fairness and racial representation as a way to move forward.  She also implored citizens as they commented next week to “look to their better angels” and “consider what is good for other citizens that have been historically disenfranchised in our political system.”

Concerns were raised as to whether map drawers had included all the proposed changes so far from the Commission. Several commissioners complained about increased split jurisdictions in the newest maps. Map drawers acknowledged an attempt to eliminate pairings but weren’t sure how far to go because of public backlash.  There were questions as to why neither attempted to take into account Sen. Barker’s recommended Richmond map that could have yielded another majority-minority district.  Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) also said the map drawers didn’t explore other changes in the Hampton Roads area for bringing districts together.  “It’s frustrating that we’re not seeing our directions on their maps.”

The possibility of heightened partisanship by the map drawers was considered.  Co-chair Babichenko strongly reminded map drawers and counsel that they are asked not to advocate for particular maps. “Now is the time for us to make decisions.”  The division between the map drawers was also evident several times as the Democratic counsel asked that Republican map drawers stick to a discussion of their own maps.

There was lengthy debate on how many maps the Commission should post for public comments; whether to use a coin toss to decide which specific maps to use; and whether to include any changes from the map drawers through the end of that day.   Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) was thanked by her fellow commissioners for introducing some optimism in the proceedings with a personal story of repeated attempts to bake a cake – and her eventual success.  

While it was hoped the final draft Commission maps would be posted by 5 p.m., Division of Legislative Services (DLS) attorney Meg Lamb expressed concerns about the agency’s ability to respond that quickly.  The result was that the Senate maps were posted as A5 and B4 and House maps as A7 and B6.  Two of the maps were dated October 2 and two were posted in the early morning hours of October 3.  The Commission website would also include links to maps submitted by the public.

MORE COMPLETE DETAILS ON THE COMMISSION MEETING FOLLOW –

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Searching for Best Way Forward!

With eight virtual public hearings scheduled to start Monday, October 4th, the Virginia Redistricting Commission met Friday, October 1st,  amid concerns expressed by presiding co-chair Greta Harris that they are “literally running out of time.”  The day’s goal was to finish maps for the Hampton Roads and Eastern regions and proceed to Central, West Central, Valley and Northern Virginia.  Progress was hampered, however, by technical issues and a substitute map drawer who was not totally up-to-speed on the progress so far. There was also time-consuming debate about how to move forward after review of each regional map.  With each party justifying their preferred versions, questions were also raised about the number of maps to put forward and what would be most helpful to the public.  

Major attention at Friday’s meeting was given to determining the number of “majority-minority districts”, as well as “coalition” and “opportunity districts” in Hampton Roads and the Central region which includes Richmond.  These were areas determined by Dr. Maxwell Palmer to have racially polarized voting (RPV).   There was considerable confusion, particularly for the Hampton Roads area as to which districts were in the “footprint” for each region, so the figures were difficult to compare. 

There was also division on whether data from the 2017 Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax election could be used to determine performance of the district or suggest “packing.”

The Commission is now returning on Saturday to complete three remaining areas. They will start at 9 a.m. and go as long as needed to finish up the maps in time for the public to review at the hearings.  

MORE COMPLETE DETAILS ON THE COMMISSION MEETING FOLLOW –

Revised A5 (Republican) and B5 (Democrat) maps had been loaded overnight Thursday by the Division of Legislative Services (DLS) and the commissioners did not have an opportunity to look at any changes before the meeting began at 8 a.m. Friday. For the first hour, the new maps were shown only on the big screen and not on their individual laptops which made it difficult to view.  A further wrinkle was that Republican map drawer John Morgan was not available and an alternative team member, Kent Stigall substituted for him.  Stigall had a few hours to review the maps but was at a disadvantage and not able to answer Commissioner questions as quickly about the new proposed map.  

Beginning with the Democrats B5 map, map drawer Ken Strasma said they had tried to work with the Republican version and made a number of changes in their B4 map in response to comments and debate, focusing on population and competitiveness.  Some districts were redrawn with an eye toward compactness.  They specifically tried to see if they could lower  the % deviation to create more opportunity in surrounding districts.  

While both map drawers referred to the two Hampton Roads maps as “substantially similar,” the Democratic counsel, Dr. Kareem Crayton expressed “grave concerns” about a pattern of “packing” in several districts. He used data from the 2017 election of African American Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax to suggest some districts were overpopulated.  Republican counsel Bryan Tyson, however, warned, “It is dangerous to use the Voting Rights Act to enforce political outcomes.  The question is whether you could have created another district?  The population is barely on the edge.  I don’t see a packing issue here.” 

The commissioners continued to frequently ask about the election results for these districts with the 2017 election of African American Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax used as an example.  Further questions were also asked about what percent creates “packing.”  Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Falls Church) Locke asked about the basis for the challenge in the Bethune-Hill court case. Republican counsel Bryan Tyson said, “It is important to remember that in the Section 2 case, it was a two-step process.  Did you include too many African Americans and then the special master reduced it.  At that point, the districts were below 50%.”  

Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) mentioned she considers Hampton Roads to be Tidewater and the Peninsula. She would like to maximize “opportunity districts” as much as possible.  “We’re getting there.  Sen. Barker has pointed out that Suffolk and Franklin are part of the Hampton Roads planning district and should be considered part of Hampton Roads.  I’m not totally unhappy with what I’ve seen so far.”   Citizen commissioner James Abrenio of Fairfax asked, “Sounds like we’re on the same page about creating another “effective opportunity district.”  Why are we not moving forward with this?”

When DLS attorney Meg Lamb asked for instructions on whether to move ahead with the Republican (A5) or Democrat (B5) map as the base for the Hampton Roads region, there was a lengthy debate on the best way to move forward. Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church began by saying he hadn’t heard any objections to the B team (Democrat) map so “let’s adopt that approach and move on up the coast.”  Co-chair Harris (Democrat) agreed, “Since there was accommodation for the Republican map on Wednesday, let’s take the Dems version today.”  Sen. McDougle objected, saying in order to move the ball forward, they should take the Strasma plan (B5) for south Hampton Roads and use the A5 version for the Peninsula.  “Split the baby.  It’s up to us to do it.”  Read more

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Commission Reviews State House Maps for Three Regions

The Virginia Redistricting Commission began its detailed review of draft maps for the House of Delegates on September 29, but after four hours of discussion, was able to consider only three of the regions it had planned to review. The commission will meet again on Friday, October 1 at 8 a.m., and has scheduled its first weekend meeting at 9 a.m. on Saturday October 2.

The agendas have not yet been posted, but the October 1 meeting is likely to focus on House maps beyond the three areas it reviewed on September 29, namely the Southwest, Southside and Hampton Roads regions. Previously, the commission had expected to review a revised map for Senate maps on Saturday. While a Sunday meeting has not been formally announced yet, that prospect was referenced during the meeting.

With eight virtual public hearings scheduled to start on Monday October 4, the Division of Legislative Services staff was asked what the commission was required to decide before the mandated hearings begin. DLS attorney Meg Lamb said there was “no legal prohibition” on putting forth alternatives, but said the staff “would encourage a draft that is close to complete. I think there would be a concern about multiple versions going forward.” Republican counsel Bryan Tyson echoed that point, suggesting that once the differing versions are “schmushed together,” it will be harder to make major changes.

The commissioners started their consideration with the Southwest region, working eastward across the state to Southside and then Hampton Roads. Once again debate over the southeast corner of the state centered on issues related to redistricting minority communities. Legislative commissioners were still reluctant to take formal votes, while others suggested map drawers needed more guidance. Near the end of the meeting, several Democratic members suggested there was a consensus to support the map the Republican map drawer had produced for District 77 in Southside, and to meld the Hampton Roads districts drawn by the Democratic map drawer, which seemed to create more districts where the non-white population was more than 40 percent, if still short of a majority. But Republican Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko cut that discussion off to permit time for public comment before the meeting had to end. Only one of three virtual commenters who had signed up then appeared.

As the commission worked through the maps, members demonstrated the importance of geographic diversity on the commission as members contributed their personal knowledge of different parts of the state. Democratic commissioners Greta Harris and James Abrenio shared that they had lived in the southwest part of the state when they were children, and Republican Commissioner Richard Harrell, a retired trucking executive, drew on his knowledge of trucking routes through the Blue Ridge mountains.

Map drawers had been asked to try to avoid “incumbent pairings,” that is, when incumbents are pitted against each other, in their latest iterations. But commission members quickly focused on a boundary that separated two incumbents in Washington County, rather than keeping the county intact. Harris and Democratic commissioner Sean Kumar expressed concern that too much emphasis had been placed on unpairing incumbents at the expense of criteria they considered more important.

At previous meetings, legislative members had argued that the commission would eventually have to review incumbent addresses and pairings for purposes of determining whether their maps disadvantaged a political party. Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) noted that because of declines in population, the Southwest was likely to lose a seat in the House of Delegates. Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) said he didn’t disagree with Kumar’s concerns, but that he wanted those concerns “to be remembered when we go to Northern Virginia and Hampton Read more

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Commission Tackles Senate Maps in Marathon Session

 

With its deadline rapidly approaching, the Virginia Redistricting Commission rolled up its sleeves September 27 and spent six and a half hours reviewing draft maps for Virginia’s 40 Senate districts.

The starting point was a single map that was hammered out over the weekend by its two co-chairs, its two partisan map drawers and legal counsel and the Division of Legislative Services staff. The meeting began with the two map drawers each describing the map to the commission, noting that with a bit more flexibility on population deviations, they had been able to reduce the number of split counties. They also succeeded in eliminating all but one potential “incumbent pairing,” (where two incumbents are placed in the same district). (In some cases, they noted, incumbents plan to retire before the new boundaries take effect.) They also discussed how the plan sought to increase new opportunities for the state’s growing minority population to win legislative seats.

Following their presentation, Democratic Co-Chair Greta Harris said, “I was probably wrong in stating that it was a consensus map. Each map drawer is coming at it from a different perspective.” But working with their partisan advisers, the co-chairs worked out a compromise for the commission to discuss as a whole.

The longest debate surrounded differing approaches to drawing districts for the Hampton Roads area, a part of the state where an analysis has found that Racially Polarized Voting, or differences between white voters and minority voters, occurs. After a long discussion, including a break to give the map drawers a chance to try and reach a compromise, Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) moved that Democratic approach be incorporated into the draft map. Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) immediately offered a substitute motion in favor of the Republican approach. Simon wondered aloud what was going on and why the two sides have “dug in so hard on the differences. . . ?” Lawyers explained that the major difference was where and how the district on the Eastern Shore joined the mainland, and the effect that had on dividing up the jurisdictions in the southeast corner of the state, and their minority populations.

When the vote came, the commission split along partisan lines, until Simon, realizing that Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) had had to step out, voted along with the Republicans. That permitted him to introduce a motion to reconsider the vote late in the meeting, “in the interests of comity.” This time, the commission agreed by voice vote to let the map drawers try to work out a compromise.

At the end of the meeting, Harris detailed several other issues for the map drawers to review, many of them raised by the public at this meeting and previous ones, when they prepare their next Senate map, due by October 2 for posting before the public hearings begin:

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Redistricting Commission Continues Its Slow Review of Draft Maps

 

The Virginia Redistricting Commission continued its deliberations on September 23, feeling the crunch of the deadlines it faces for drawing maps in time for another round of public hearings while still waiting for important data to be incorporated.

At the meeting, the commission’s map makers began to share details of the Senate districts on which they felt they were achieving consensus. But the commission first had a lengthy, sometimes emotional, discussion about protecting minority voting rights in the state.

At the outset, Mackenzie Babichenko, the Republican co-chair, outlined more details about the commission’s upcoming round of virtual public hearings, which will be targeted to specific regions of the state. On Monday October 4, Southwest Virginia will be reviewed at 10 a.m. and the Northern Virginia region at 4 p.m. On Tuesday October 5, Southside will be reviewed at 10 a.m. and the Hampton Roads region at 4 p.m. On Wednesday October 6, the Eastern region will be reviewed at 10 a.m. and the Central Region at 4 p.m. And on Thursday October 7, the Valley region will be reviewed at 10 a.m. and the West Central region at 4 p.m.

Commissioners just received an 80-page compilation of the emailed public comments that the commission has received so far, and members of the public can continue to submit comments through the commission’s website. In addition, comments directed at proposed maps are now specifically tied to the spot on the pertinent map with a virtual pushpin. Babichenko said the commission was now looking for very specific feedback on what the public liked and didn’t like about the maps, and suggestions for how they could be improved.

Before the start of the meeting, the map makers shared their suggestions for a handful of Senate districts in the southwest corner of the state where population counts and jurisdictional boundaries make their decision-making easier than in other, more diverse and populous regions.

But the review quickly broke down with arguments over use of political data and how much the map drawers should proceed when they still lack certain kinds of data. Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) continued to argue that political data should start to be used as a check of partisan fairness, and instructions not to favor one party over another. That is one of the commission’s criteria, but one that is lower than other constitutionally mandated requirements. But the commission, and its map drawers, are still waiting for an updated analysis of Racially Polarized Voting and data on primary elections over the past decade that Read more

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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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