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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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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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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Citizen Member Gilliam Resigns From Commission

The Virginia Redistricting Commission was thrown another curve at its first in-person meeting July 6 when it was announced that Republican Marvin Gilliam, co-chair of its Budget and Finance Subcommittee, had submitted his resignation, effective the next day.

Under the commission’s enabling legislation, the full commission, rather than the Commission Selection Committee of appeals court justices, is designated to select Gilliam’s replacement. The member must come from the list of potential commission members submitted by Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment because he was the legislator who nominated Gilliam. The Division of Legislative Services staff said it would reach out to the remaining names on Norment’s list (page eight of this document) and forward the applications of those who were still willing to serve to commission members for their consideration. It was expected that the commission would make a decision at its next meeting, scheduled for July 19 at 10 a.m.

The names of Norment’s nominees and a zip file that includes their applications is still available for public review on the commission’s website, under materials for the January 6 meeting of the selection committee. The commission’s Republican co-chair, Mackenzie Babichenko of Mechanicsville, and Richard Harrell, co-chair of the commission’s Public Outreach and Communications Subcommittee, both were appointed from Norment’s list, leaving  a maximum of 14 names, four women and 10 men, for consideration, assuming all are still interested. One of the women is Black and one, Hispanic. The applicants live in six of the state’s eight regions; none, however, is from the Southwest, where Gilliam lives. Gilliam’s inclusion on the list of nominees drew attention after it was reported that the former coal-mining executive from Bristol had donated more than $900,000 to Republican candidates in the state.

Gilliam’s resignation comes as the commission faces new requirements to meet in-person and as it is about to begin a busy month of in-person and virtual public hearings, four of each,  directed to eight designated regions. More times and locations of those hearings were announced at the meeting; the commission committed itself to having in-person representation at every hearing from both citizens and legislators and from both parties; under a tentative schedule posted by DLS, Gilliam had committed only to attending the September 24 in-person hearing scheduled for his region of the state.

Without a communications consultant in place yet, DLS staff said it had been placing ads in print media and distributing press releases to alert the public to the schedule of upcoming hearings.  Staff have also made use of a Twitter account, and a listserve that sends out notifications to persons who provide their e-mail address on the commission’s website. In response to a question from a legislator, the staff said that all of the hearings would be covered by public broadcasting outlets and would be recorded for later viewing.

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