The Virginia Redistricting Commission held its third official meeting April 12, taking some more steps toward fleshing out its plans and procedures going forward.
The commission has scheduled its next meetings, all on Mondays from 10 a.m. to noon, for April 26, May 10 and May 24. The agenda of the next meeting is scheduled to include a presentation on “Redistricting 101,” and the Division of Legislative Services staff indicated that that presentation might be pre-recorded to help make more efficient use of the commission’s meeting times. A scheduled presentation for the latest meeting, covering Robert’s Rules of Order, talking to the media and talking with the general public, was shared with the commissioners in a pre-taped video.
Presentation slides said that the Virginia Code did not permit commission members, staff or consultants to “individually engage with interested citizens or groups regarding the redistricting process outside of formal public meetings or hearings.” The protocol, it said, “ensures full transparency and accountability, and the integrity of our process.” Co-Chair Greta Harris noted that the DLS staff had drafted suggested email messages for commissioners to use when responding to the public so that they would stay within the rules and promote transparency.
DLS staff member Julie Smith described planned improvements for the commission’s website, but did not provide a timeline by which the improvements would be completed. Smith said that in the future, interested persons will be able to subscribe to be notified when redistricting-related updates are made. In addition, the website will seek to address Frequently Asked Questions about Read more
The Virginia Redistricting Commission will hold its next meeting on Monday April 12 from 10 a.m. to noon. The commission’s previously announced schedule was modified after Sen. Mamie Locke, one of the legislator members, said she would be unable to attend the announced dates.
The commission may also meet on April 26 and May 10, but those dates are not yet official.
The agenda for the next meeting will be posted here. The session will include a presentation by the Division of Legislative Services staff on meeting etiquette. A video of the commission’s last meeting and other materials are also available.
–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church
Co-chair Greta Harris presided over the second meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission on Tuesday morning, March 30. The Commissioners considered the proposed timeline which is summarized in our March 25 blog post.
The first point for discussion was whether the days of the meetings could be changed. It was recommended that the Division of Legislative Services staff (DLS) would poll members offline so personal schedules could be consulted in more detail. The next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 13 but watch this blog for alerts to any changes.
Census data now expected to arrive by mid-August.
It was then announced that rather than September 30, the Census data would be available the second week in August. It will be in a different format than the data which will follow in late September.
Meg Lamb, an attorney with DLS, told the commission the state should not have any problem using the data despite the format questions. The numbers for prison reallocation were compiled in summer 2020 so these figures also will not be an issue. The mid-August arrival of the Census data will trigger the “45 day” timeline.
Introduction to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
Commission members will generally rely on DLS for guidance, but an introduction to FOIA was provided for the benefit of new Commission members and the public. Alan Gernhardt, executive director, Freedom of Information Advisory Council, presented the slide program. (Begins on page 4.)
Of note –
- Anytime three or more members of the Commission gather to talk Commission business, they are subject to Virginia’s Open Meetings Law which means they must provide the public with advance notice, the opportunity to watch, and minutes.
- DLS staff do not count toward the number of members.
- For Commission work, legislator members must follow the same rules as citizen members. (Usual exemptions for legislators under FOIA will not apply.) This question was specifically asked by citizen commissioner Sean Kumar.
- All votes must be taken at properly noticed public meetings. No secret ballots or even written ballots. Otherwise, votes are void.
- Each Commissioner should use their special Commission email addresses and use DLS to distribute information.
- Social media may be public records and subject to FOIA if used to transact public business.
- Penalties through the courts can be costly.
- The Zoom “Chat” is FOIAble and could become a closed meeting within a meeting. Alan Gernhardt pointed out that a Commissioner on the phone would not be able to see the “Chat”. More to come on this issue.
For more specifics, we were referred to the Virginia Code on FOIA.
Written Public Comments are available on the DLS website.
18 members of the public also registered to speak but, in the end, 12 spoke. Some referred to their written public comments which were previously submitted. There were a wide range of comments:
- Several who represented advocacy groups stressed the importance of transparency, fostering citizen participation, and ensuring meetings are more accessible to the public. It is essential that meetings and materials be available in Spanish and other languages.
- Detailed suggestions were presented for a Commission website and included a 5-state survey of the best features of other Commission websites.
- Citizen members were urged to be the voice of Virginians and stand up against incumbent protection.
- Individuals also presented a redistricting strategy for Virginia congressional districts and called for the city of Lynchburg to be unified in one district.
TIP – If you want to speak before the Commission, you need to register through the DLS site when the meeting is announced. This needs to be done early as requests to speak are not accepted the morning of the meeting. You will then receive a Zoom link that you should use to access the meeting so they can connect to you when it is your time to comment. It cannot be shared with others.
Observer Corps Reporters:
Carolyn Caywood, LWV-SHR
Chris DeRosa, LWV-ARL
Peggy Layne, LWV-MC
Fran Larkins, LWV-FRA
The Virginia Redistricting Commission will consider a draft timeline for its work over the next year when it meets on March 30. In addition, members will receive training on the requirements of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
The meeting can be accessed through this link. Persons who wish to make public comments during the March 30 meeting can register here. Person who wish to comment on an agenda item should send an email to . (Comments will be posted in full, including the name of the commenter and any contact information provided.)
The proposed timeline envisions a six-stage process, tied to the receipt of the U.S. Census data, which has been delayed this year. In the draft, the Division of Legislative Services (DLS) anticipates receiving the Census data by the second week of August, an earlier date than the U.S. Census Bureau had previously announced. (Normally, Virginia and New Jersey receive their data earlier than other states, but this year’s delays will mean that House of Delegates districts will not change for this year’s elections.)
Under the constitutional amendment, the commission has 45 days to prepare its maps for the Senate and House of Delegates for consideration by the General Assembly. Under the amendment, Congressional maps must be submitted within 60 days. In addition, enabling legislation specified that once the Census data is received, DLS must adjust it within 30 days to reflect the home addresses of prison inmates.
The timeline sets short-term meeting dates for April 13, April 27, and May 11, all beginning at 10 a.m. The agendas are for the early meetings are largely focused on administrative decisions and training for the commissioners. Here is the proposed schedule:
Phase 1: Preparation for Commission Work—March to April: During this time, commissioners would receive training on administrative issues, set the commission’s budget, and develop procedures for public participation and keeping a record of commission meetings.
The Virginia Redistricting Commission has scheduled its next meeting for March 30 at 10 a.m. The session will mark the first time the commission has met since its inaugural meeting on January 21, when it elected two co-chairs. The agenda for the meeting is still pending, but will be posted on the redistricting page of the website of the Division of Legislative Services when it is ready.
The U.S. Census Bureau on February 12 committed to release the data necessary to complete the latest round of redistricting by September 30, 2021. The announcement almost certainly means that Virginia legislative districts cannot be redrawn in time for the 2021 state legislative races.
In its announcement, the bureau said it would release the data for all states at the same time. Before Covid-19 delayed and impacted the implementation of the 2020 Census, the bureau provided the data for Virginia as early as March, which would have given the redistricting commission adequate time to complete its work, under the requirements of the recently passed constitutional amendment.
Still to be determined is when new maps would be imposed on the General Assembly. Both members of the House of Delegates and the Senate would normally run again in 2023. Under the new schedule, maps could still be redrawn in time for the 2022 congressional elections.
Click here for bureau’s full press release.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has published a guide detailing how delays in the Census will impact the schedule for all states, including Virginia.
Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-VA, Falls Church
The League of Women Voters of Virginia today joined with other redistricting reform organizations to encourage the new Virginia Redistricting Commission to help citizens define their “communities of interest” when the commission begins drawing legislative and congressional district maps. Communities of interest must now be considered when the maps are drawn. The coalition pledged to work with the commission to help citizens understand the tools that can be used to define their communities and to encourage them to share their perspectives with the commission. Here is the text of the letter:
February 9, 2021
To the members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission:
We represent a coalition of organizations who advocate for fair districts, transparency, and public
involvement in the redistricting process. We were gratified to see the outpouring of applications from
Virginians willing to serve on the Commission and have high expectations for not only the final maps,
but also the public and transparent process that will create them.
Though the members of this Commission represent much of the diversity of the Commonwealth, no
group of 16 individuals can be sufficiently familiar with every community in order to accurately represent
their interests. To that end, the public input mechanisms built into this process are crucial. They alone,
however, will not meet the high standards we believe Virginians expect in this newly transparent
process. Therefore, our coalition seeks to supplement the outreach done by the Commission in order to
facilitate broader, meaningful public engagement.
Because communities of interest are now legally required to be taken into account when drawing
district lines, it is imperative that the public is able to effectively communicate to the Commission what
they believe their communities of interest are. This Commission and the surrounding reforms have
created space for unprecedented public involvement, and we are committed to ensuring that
involvement takes place.
Using public community mapping tools – created by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project (available at
representable.org and explained at gerrymander.princeton.edu/virginia-report) and the Metric Geometry
and Gerrymandering Group at Tufts University (available at districtr.org) – we seek to provide
community members with the tools to submit quantitative recommendations to the Commission.
Individuals will use these tools to precisely show the boundaries of their communities and their ideal
districts to accurately represent their communities’ interests. We will also host numerous virtual events
to collect public input and we plan to invite all Commissioners to participate in hopes you will take the
opportunity to attend.
We stand ready to assist, to engage, to educate, and to participate in this historic process. Together,
we will ensure the most public, transparent redistricting process Virginia has ever seen and to deliver
the most accurate, community-based legislative districts that residents of the Commonwealth so rightly
Kathay Feng, National Redistricting and Representation Director, Common Cause
Michael Futrell, President, National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization
Natalie Snider, State Advocacy Director, AARP Virginia
Phillip Thomson, Executive Director, National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization
Deb Wake, President, League of Women Voters of Virginia
Samuel Wang, Princeton Gerrymandering Project
Liz White, Executive Director, OneVirginia2021 Foundation
–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV, Falls Church
The new bi-partisan Virginia Redistricting Commission held its first meeting January 21, and promptly agreed to elect its two women citizen members, one from each party’s contingent, to serve as co-chairs.
The constitutional amendment that was approved in November had specified that a citizen member be elected as chair. But after the members introduced themselves, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, moved that a co-chair be nominated from each party, and Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who drafted the original version of the amendment, seconded his motion. After Division of Legislative Services staff advised a citizen member that the commission could do that, the commission voted unanimously to elect Greta Harris, a Democratic member from Richmond, and Mackenzie Babichenko, a Republican member from Mechanicsville, as co-chairs. The commission agreed that the co-chairs would alternate leadership of the commission’s meetings, and work together with the DLS staff to prepare future agendas. Harris, 69, is CEO of the non-profit Better Housing Coalition; Babichenko, 39, is an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Hanover County.
Meg Lamb, an attorney for DLS, reported that it was not clear when the Commonwealth would receive the final U.S. Census data that would enable it to complete its work. Barker said a member of President Biden’s transition team had recently contacted him to discuss the situation because Virginia—and New Jersey—normally would have to redraw their maps this year for legislative elections. Barker said the Virginia Department of Elections had said it could hold primaries for statewide races in June and as late as August 24 for the House of Delegates and still meet statutory deadlines for elections.
But Barker and Newman suggested that in the meantime the commission could begin its work using preliminary data. Barker said population shifts in the state had not been as dramatic as in the recent past. There has been some population growth in the northern part of the state and around Fredericksburg, he noted, with a loss of population in the South. By March, the nationwide reapportionment of congressional seats is expected to be completed, determining how many congressional districts Virginia will have.
Some of the citizen members requested additional guidance regarding transparency requirements and redistricting in general. Lamb said they would all receive copies of the so-called National Conference of State Legislatures “Red Book” on redistricting. (The book is available for purchase by the public through the NCSL website. )
The DLS staff explained that the commission would be able to hire attorneys and consultants, as necessary, to help with its work. It was noted that before the constitutional amendment passed, the General Assembly conducted a procurement and chose the software package Citygate GIS to support its work. Lamb said DLS could further explore other packages that might be publicly available. A number of questions regarding prospective timetables and process will be taken up at future meetings.
At the opening of the meeting, the members introduced themselves. Several of the citizens expressed their “excitement” over being involved. Most said they had spent most of their lives in the state, some residing in different regions over their lifetimes. Following the appointment of the eight citizen members on January 6, concerns were raised about two of the appointees over campaign contributions and comments published on social media. Those issues, however, were not revisited by the commission members at their meeting.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, acknowledged that he had opposed the constitutional amendment, but said he was “committed to doing our best to make it work.” He said he hoped his concerns would turn out to be wrong. Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, did not comment on her vote against the amendment, but noted that she was an ordained minister, and that she might “pause for a prayer” if she felt the commission would benefit.
A handful of Virginia residents had indicated in advance of the meeting that they wanted to speak, and they were allotted up to two minutes each. One, Suzanne Chambers, a member of NAACP branch 7045, described how Amherst County, where she lived, had been negatively impacted by gerrymandering, Jeff Jacobs of Herndon expressed concern that his fast-growing area was not represented on the commission. He and Gary Page of Farmville raised questions related to software and citizen input. Another member of the public who had trouble using the Zoom platform was asked to submit her comments in writing instead.
–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-VA, Falls Church
Thanks to the transparency embodied in the new constitutional amendment, you can read the full applications of the citizens who were appointed to the commission. Click here for our summary of their backgrounds and excerpts from their letters of recommendation. Click here to download a zip file containing their complete applications and letters of reference, as well as those of the 62 individuals who were finalists.
–Fran Larkins, LWV-VA Fredericksburg, and Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-VA, Falls Church