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.  . . .”

Read more

Share this:

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


Share this:

Republican Sen. Bill Stanley Appointed to Redistricting Commission

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, has been named to the Virginia Redistricting Commission, replacing Sen. Steve Newman, R-Forest, who resigned suddenly on September 3. Stanley was appointed by Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, taking his seat just as the commission begins two intense months of hearings and meetings to prepare new legislative and congressional maps that reflect the results of the 2020 Census.

Stanley introduced himself at the commission’s September 9 meeting, after Republican Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko joked about whether she and Greta Harris, the Democratic co-chair, had “scared Newman away.” Stanley said in replacing Newman, he had “big shoes to fill,” but that he was exceptionally excited about “this citizen-driven commission” and that he hoped to join the members in creating “fair maps and good maps.” 

Stanley described how his district, the 22nd, covered portions of several counties and cities around Martinsville, and then said, “Thanks Sen. Barker,” a nod to Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, a fellow commission member who was chiefly responsible for drawing the Senate districts in the 2011 round of redistricting, when Democrats controlled that chamber. Stanley observed that when Barker drew his district initially, it had included two precincts in North Carolina.

The choice of Stanley helps address some concerns that had been raised about the geographic diversity of the commission after Marvin Gilliam, a Republican citizen member from Bristol, resigned his seat in July. Stanley represents an area that was farther to the west and south of Newman’s around Lynchburg. In the Senate, Stanley serves on the Judiciary and Local Government committees, among others. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

Share this:

Republican Sen. Newman Resigns from Redistricting Commission

In a surprising move, Republican Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford) announced in a tweet September 3 that he will resign as a member of the Virginia Redistricting Commission, effective September 6. 

In his statement, Newman said, “I have enjoyed working with my colleagues on the Virginia Redistricting Commission for the past nine months. Approved by the voters last November, the bipartisan Commission is in its first year and I wish them well as they continue to navigate unchartered territory.”

Newman was one of two Republican senators appointed by Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment to serve on the 16-member commission. It will now be up to Norment to name a replacement from the Senate ranks. One of Norment’s citizen nominees, Marvin Gilliam, a coal mining executive from Bristol, resigned on July 6; he was replaced by Virginia Trost-Thornton who, like Newman, lives in Forest, VA. 

In recent weeks, Newman had expressed concern about whether the commission would be able to win the General Assembly’s approval for its maps. He had been a strong proponent of hiring separate partisan legal counsel for the commission, saying such an approach would give members of the General Assembly greater confidence in the maps. Some citizen members pushed back on that, and the commission recently voted to “start from scratch” when it drew its maps, rather than considering current boundaries. At a recent commission meeting, Newman had noted that he did not intend to run again when his term expires in 2023. 

Newman’s resignation comes at the very start of the commission’s 45-day window for preparing its maps, now the the Census data has been received. Over the next weeks, the commission has adopted an aggressive schedule to complete its work; the commission is also now required to achieve a quorum of both legislative and citizen members, now that restrictions related to meeting during the Covid-19 pandemic have been relaxed. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

Share this:

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.


Read more

Share this:

Shining a Light on Virginia’s New Redistricting Commission!

by Fran Larkins and Chris DeRosa, Co-Coordinators LWV-VA Redistricting Committee 
(With contributions, of course, from all the Redistricting Observer Corps members)

Many Virginia League of Women Voters members worked very hard to ensure passage of the Constitutional Amendment establishing the Virginia Redistricting Commission. 

In the fall of 2019, President Deb Wake asked Chris DeRosa (Arlington) to co-chair a Redistricting Committee and to coordinate the LWVUS People Powered Fair Maps (PPFM) efforts in Virginia.  We soon realized our work didn’t end in November 2020 when two-thirds of Virginians voted “Yes!” on the constitutional amendment. Fran Larkins (Fredericksburg) joined Chris as co-coordinator and a core group of the committee became an Observer Corps to monitor the Redistricting Commission. Sara Fitzgerald (Falls Church), an experienced blogger, worked with Nancy Priddy (Richmond) in January to set up a blog on the League website. Our first post as “watchdogs” reported on the selection of Commissioners.  

Since then, we have taken turns writing detailed notes of all meetings of the Commission and its two subcommittees, as well as all public hearings, in-person and virtual. So far, we have covered 21 Commission and subcommittee meetings and four public hearings.  Every meeting is summarized and posted on the blog within a few hours of adjournment. These blogs help members and the greater public, as well as Division of Legislative Services’ staff and Commissioners, quickly gain information and insight into the meetings and hearings.
The Redistricting Observer Corps includes “veteran” League members Carolyn Caywood (South Hampton Roads) and Sara Fitzgerald who was involved with updating the Virginia League study on redistricting reform in 2015. The fight for redistricting reform brought others to join the Virginia League for the first time – Chris DeRosa and Candy Butler (Fairfax) in 2017, Fran Larkins in 2019, and Peggy Layne (Montgomery County), joined just last year. All were looking for a way to make a difference!
The various backgrounds and skills of the Redistricting Observer Corps make for a strong team. These include Sara Fitzgerald’s journalist career with the Washington Post whose speed at writing is amazing and an example for us all. Chris DeRosa, our inspiring and tireless leader, is a M. Ed retired special education teacher and Peggy Layne is a retired engineer and higher education administrator. We’re grateful for her enjoyment of the “nitty gritty of data and map drawing.” Two librarians are a natural for the team – Carolyn Caywood, retired from the Virginia Beach Public Library, and Fran Larkins, former librarian with the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. The Corps is also a perfect fit for Candy Butler, a political science/journalism graduate of Syracuse University and a Capitol Hill staffer of 34 years. We are so grateful she “jumped on the moving train.”

Corps members admit to being redistricting “geeks” and support each other at busy hearings by “filling) in the gaps if a name or detail is missed.” An added bonus is “we enjoy a lot of camaraderie as we watch the meetings and hearings online, while texting to each other as if we were all together.”  The work is truly rewarding and “to top it all off, it’s fun!” 
Covering the Commission over the next few months is going to be increasingly time-consuming and, if you would like to join our team, we’d welcome your energy.    

Share this:

Redistricting Commission Chooses New Member from Lynchburg Area

The Virginia Redistricting Committee voted July 19 to fill a vacant seat on the commission by naming Virginia Trost-Thornton of Forest to replace Marvin Gilliam as a Republican citizen member, and moved forward on hiring a consultant to manage its communications and outreach to the public. The commission also tentatively set its next meeting for Tuesday August 3 at 4 p.m., working around the schedule of the General Assembly’s special session and its own schedule of public hearings.

Trost-Thornton, a lawyer and trained chemist from Forest, near Lynchburg, who is of Hispanic ethnicity, was chosen from a list of 12 persons who had been nominated by Sen. Minority Leader Tommy Norment last January and who were still willing to serve. The commission’s original citizen members were appointed by a panel of five retired appeals court judges, but it fell to the commission itself to fill the vacancy; the appointment of a new Republican member required the support of at least one Democratic member.

At the outset of the meeting, Mackenzie Babichenko, the commission’s Republican co-chair, said that she and her Democratic counterpart, Greta Harris, had reached out informally to other commissioners to see which candidates had the most support. She said that Trost-Thornton and one other nominee, Jeff Bolander from McGaheysville, had been suggested by more than one of the members they were able to consult.  Bolander, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and Defense Department employee,  was a member of the Rockingham County Republican Committee when he submitted his application.

Harris began by nominating Trost-Thornton. Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) then introduced a substitute motion to nominate Bolander, noting that the commission had no member from the I-81 corridor. Bolander lives in what is designated as the “Valley” on the regional maps used by the commission while Trost-Thornton’s hometown is in the “West Central” region. During the discussion, several members supported appointing a member from the southwestern part of the state, as close as possible to where Gilliam had lived. Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) said he felt it was important to have someone from that part of the state because that was where the state’s population was declining the most, and many of those districts would need to be redrawn and consolidated.

Responding to the regional concerns, Harris noted that while she now lives in Richmond, she was born in Danville. She said that “while I think we want the most inclusive body that we can, I think each of us in our selection has been charged with representing the entire state.”

Last January, Bolander’s name was submitted by both Norment and House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert. As the judges considered names, his was, at one point, put forward by all five of the judges as they reviewed the lists submitted by the General Assembly’s party leaders, but was passed over when the final slate of members was put together. Trost-Thornton’s name was on the short list of one of the judges who reviewed the applicants.

The motion to appoint Bolander was approved by a vote of 7-5, with abstentions by two Democratic members. But he failed to get the majority of the commission that Division of Legislative Services staff members explained was needed in this case. Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria) provided the Democratic vote that would have been needed; Republican citizen member Jose Feliciano voted against appointing Bolander.

Read more

Share this:


On July 15, The Virginia Redistricting Commission (VRC) held its first virtual public hearing, focusing on the West Central Region of Virginia, as defined by the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center Demographic Regions Map (cities: Lynchburg, Radford, Roanoke, Salem; counties: Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Botetourt, Campbell, Craig, Floyd, Franklin, Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski, Roanoke).

There were intermittent connectivity issues with several registered speakers, but the Commission staff worked through them so that everyone was able to present their views.

Of those who spoke, five discussed the economic and educational triangle described by Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Radford in Montgomery County.  They all agreed that this area, and also the county, is a clear community of interest.  Peggy Layne, a member of the League of Women Voters, said “…it would be better served if the county, to the extent possible, had the same representative. “

Matthew Gabriele, a former member of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, agreed with earlier speakers, stating, “I hope this Redistricting Commission will remedy a longstanding wrong in the way that southwestern Virginia has been treated in which it has been carved up unnaturally to the detriment of our citizens.”

They highlighted the current representation:  Montgomery County is currently split among three state delegate districts (7th, 8th and 12th). And it is split among three state senate districts (19th, 21st, and 38th).

The people who spoke about Lynchburg reinforced the views of speakers at the July 13, 2021, hearing at Longwood University: Lynchburg would be better served being represented as a single community of interest.

Carla Heath advocated for the Commission to draw the lines so that Lynchburg is represented by one delegate and one state senator.  In closing, she said, “Serving on the inaugural redistricting commission, you have the potential to make Virginia a Fair Maps state.”

Jeffrey Rosner observed that under current legislative districts, Lynchburg is a victim of gerrymandering, “chopped up four ways”.  He continued, saying, “This gives the Commission an opportunity”, that if Lynchburg is put in one delegate district and one state senate district, it would “send a positive message” that gerrymandering is eliminated, increase public confidence in the redistricting process and also “will create a district which better represents a community of interest with greater influence for the more urban and more racially diverse city of Lynchburg.”

The final speaker, William Bestpitch, a member of the Roanoke City Council, requested that Roanoke be included in a single delegate district.  He explained that all elections for mayor, city council and constitutional offices are conducted at large.  Eight of Roanoke’s 20 precincts are split between the 11th and 17th districts. He concluded by requesting that the Commission follow Roanoke’s current precinct lines when drawing legislative districts.

Chair Babichenko concluded the hearing by encouraging the public to continue to send emails with thoughts and suggestions about redistricting to the Commission.  “We are reading them; we will consider all of them…just because you didn’t attend today doesn’t mean you’re missing out.”

The hearing began at 2:00 pm and adjourned at 2:37 pm after hearing from all but one of the registered speakers.

The following Commissioners attended the hearing:  Mackenzie Babichenko, Greta Harris, James Abrenio, Richard Harrell, Brandon Hutchins, Del. Adams, Sen. McDougle, Sen. Newman, Del. Simon.

The public hearings are being livestreamed and saved for future viewing the VRC YouTube channel.

– Candace Butler, LWV-Fairfax

Share this:

Redistricting Commission Holds First Public Hearing in Farmville


The Virginia Redistricting Commission held its first in-person public hearing July 13, and got the message from the majority of persons who spoke that it should “make Lynchburg whole again.”

The hearing at Longwood University in Farmville was the first of eight hearings the commission has scheduled over the next four weeks, four of them to be held in-person and four held virtually. A few dozen people showed up in person for the first hearing and close to 70 more were recorded as watching the livestream online. To accommodate the livestream, the commission switched to YouTube as its medium, and some viewers had trouble determining where to go once they accessed the commission’s new channel on that site. There was further frustration when remote viewers could not hear the audio portion of the hearing for the first three speakers: Michael Hankins, a Republican supervisor from Lunenburg County; Liz White, director of OneVirginia2021; and James Ghee of the Prince Edward Branch of the state NAACP. A Division of Legislative Services (DLS) staff member said afterwards that the audio would be restored when the hearing was archived on the commission’s website.

White provided a copy of her prepared remarks following the hearing. She used her time to describe how her organization is working with other non-partisan groups, including the Virginia NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Virginia, and the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, to help promote the commission’s meetings. She also said her organization was actively soliciting public comments from all Virginians and providing opportunities for them to share information about their communities through written, oral and video testimony.

In addition, she said OneVirginia2021 intends to provide this input to the commission in a “regionally relevant way,” both via email and in person at future meetings. Finally, she offered once again to provide her organization’s “expertise from working on this issue for the last decade.” This, she suggested, could range from sharing what the organization has learned from the best practices of other state commissions to providing introductions to “experienced independent map drawers and other experts.”

The commission had agreed to send at least four members to each hearing, evenly divided between the political parties, citizen and legislative members, and chambers of the General Assembly. The Farmville hearing was led by the commission’s Democratic co-chair, Greta Harris of Richmond, and attended by five other members: James Abrenio, a Democratic citizen from Alexandria, Jose Feliciano, a Republican citizen from Fredericksburg, Sen. Stephen Newman (R-Forest), Rep. Les Adams (R-Chatham) and Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax).

The hearing began at 5:30 p.m., and with only eight persons signed up to speak, it adjourned at 6:10 p.m. Barker did not arrive until right after the final public speaker and spoke briefly at the end. (The other commissioners introduced themselves at the outset, but did not make statements.) Under the commission’s procedures, persons are permitted to sign up to testify starting one hour before a hearing begins and ending one hour after it starts, but the first hearing did not last that long. A DLS staff member remained at the hearing site, but said no more speakers arrived before the deadline.

The commission has scheduled its hearings in eight different regions of the state, coinciding with regions as defined by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center. But there is no restriction on who can speak where. The first hearing was designated for the “Southside Region,” which includes Lunenburg and Prince Edward counties. On July 15 at 2 p.m., the commission will hold a virtual hearing designated for the “West Central Region.” Persons wishing to speak must register by 2 p.m. on July 14 at this site. 

Five of the eight persons who spoke at the hearing came from Lynchburg to urge the commission to reunite the city under a single legislative and Senate district, the way it had been before the last round of gerrymandering. Several said that they had been told that dividing the city into two districts would give it more political clout, but they contended that the change had only sown confusion, and that had led to apathy and anger. One of the speakers, Jack Underwood, noted that a new law requires the commission to try to preserve “communities of interest” and argued that the city itself was a “community of interest” and that “the current division harms us.”

Helen Wheelock, another city resident who argued for putting the city back together, said she was “real excited to see the [redistricting] process open and to have our voices heard.” She thanked the commissioners for “putting in the work and making the hard decisions.” But she also urged them to start “with a clean, empty map,” and to bring in professionals to help them.

At the end of the hearing, Harris thanked the participants for “taking the time out of your busy schedules.” She added, “We’re super excited about this new process and just honored to be able to serve our state this way.” After Barker arrived on the stage, Harris told the audience that the commissioners “share information and we try to be transparent.” She said she was “extremely appreciative of the values and approach the commissioners have brought” to their work.

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

Share this:

Virginia Redistricting Commission Launches New Website

The Virginia Redistricting Commission launched a new website May 24 with an easier-to-remember URL and a mechanism through which citizens can provide their e-mail addresses to receive regular communications from the commission.

At a meeting of the full commission, Amigo Wade, director of the Division of Legislative Services, said that visitors to the commission’s old web address, nested within the DLS’s web pages, would now be redirected to Democratic Co-chair Greta Harris, who was presiding at the meeting, responded, “I love that. It makes it much easier to find our body of work.”

The co-chairs of the commission’s subcommittees reported on their recent meetings, but did not call on the full commission to resolve any issues that arose during their deliberations. James Abrenio, the Democratic co-chair of the Citizen Engagement Subcommittee, said his subcommittee would be reviewing guidelines that the Michigan Redistricting Commission developed for public input at its meetings, but no mention was made of their discussion of the Michigan commission’s portal, which makes use of tools to sort, categorize and display comments and community of interest maps developed by members of the public

Abrenio reported that the subcommittee had discussed clarifying the deadline for posting written comments to the commission before a meeting. (The deadline for requesting to speak at a full commission meeting is 10 a.m. the day before.) Written comments sent to the commission by at least three individual members of the League of Women Voters of Virginia in the days before the most recent meeting were not posted before the start of the meeting.

Richard Harrell, the subcommittee’s Republican co-chair, detailed the $250,000 the Citizen Engagement Subcommittee had voted to request for its outreach, noting that it represented only 12 percent of the commission’s overall budget. Harrell said the subcommittee envisioned holding four in-person public hearings before the Census data was received, and four more after the maps were initially drawn but before they were submitted to the General Assembly. It was anticipated that four commissioners would attend each hearing, but that each commissioner would only have to attend two of the eight sessions, one before and one after the maps were drawn. The commission anticipates an equal mix of party representatives and citizen and legislators at each hearing, with members able to attend the sessions closest to their homes. Wade said DLS would soon share a proposed schedule of the hearings, which would likely start in July.

Read more

Share this:
1 2 3 11