Sunny Day for Virginia Redistricting!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.    

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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.

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REDISTRICTING COMMISSION HOLDS VIRTUAL HEARING FOR VIRGINIA’S WEST CENTRAL REGION

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

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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.

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

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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 www.virginiaredistricting.org. 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.

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Redistricting Commission Steps Up Pace of Work on Key Decisions

The Virginia Redistricting Commission stepped up the pace of its work at its May 10 meeting, setting a more aggressive schedule of subcommittee meetings in the month of May to make key decisions regarding its budget and procurements and  plans for managing citizen outreach and  public input.

Under the new timetable, the commission’s Citizen Engagement Subcommittee will meet first, on Monday May 17 at 2 p.m., to help provide guidance to the Budget and Finance Subcommittee, which will hold its first meeting on Wednesday May 19 at 2 p.m. The Citizen Engagement Subcommittee scheduled additional meetings on May 20 at 10 a.m. and Wednesday May 26 at 10 a.m. Budget and Finance plans additional meetings on Tuesday May 25 at 10 a.m. and Thursday May 27 at 10 a.m. The full commission still plans to meet on Monday May 24 at 10 a.m., when it is scheduled to receive a presentation on the 2020 census.

Like the commission, the subcommittees are co-chaired by citizen members and evenly divided between parties, between citizens and legislators and between members of the chambers of the General Assembly.  Meetings will all be open to the public and other commissioners, but only subcommittee members can vote on recommendations to the full commission.

The subcommittees’ deliberations will likely be guided by an overview the commissioners received at their latest meeting by Brooks Braun, a Division of Legislative Services member, who analyzed the budget and operations of the country’s 11 citizen-led redistricting commissions. Braun said that DLS hoped to “provide you with some context so you’re not groping in the dark.” The materials Braun prepared and assembled were posted at the meeting and have been added to the Materials document available here. 

Braun noted that Virginia’s commission was the only one with both legislator and citizen members. Of the states with citizen-led commissions, he noted that Virginia was “probably most like Colorado, Michigan and Washington,” in terms of size, and might be closest demographically to Washington in terms of its diversity  and its mix of industries.

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League Co-Sponsors “Deep Dive” Into Redistricting on May 12

The League of Women Voters is joining with other redistricting reform advocacy groups in sponsoring a virtual “Redistricting Deep Dive” on Wednesday May 12, beginning at 10 a.m.

Liz White, executive director of One Virginia 2021, one of the event’s co-sponsors, invited members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission at their May 10 meeting to tune into the webinar to build on the redistricting training they have already received. White said the event’s sponsors had “assembled a lot of the top minds” in the United States on redistricting, including former members of California’s independent redistricting commission.

The webinar is free and open to the public, and will be recorded for future viewing.

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Follow-Up to LWV’s (Virtual) Day of Action on Redistricting

The League of Women Voters of Virginia had a good turnout for its (Virtual) Day of Action on Redistricting on April 29. 

If you missed the webinar–or would like to see it again–you can view it here.

Here is a list of key links that was shared during the presentation.

Here is a copy of the slides that were used during the presentation. 

For more information about how the League of Women Voters of the U.S. is advocating for redistricting reform, click here. 

If you would like to contact the League of Women Voters of Virginia about scheduling a program about redistricting or arrange for a training session on some of the redistricting map-drawing tools, click here. 

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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Redistricting Day of Action Presentation

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