Virginia Voter, April 2021

Virginia Voter, April 2021

Contents:

President’s Message: Because We’re a League

LWV-VA Nominating Committee

Save The Date: Convention

Redistricting Update

Action Issue Group: Spring is for Cultivation

Domestic Violence Issue Group Forming: Call for Members

It Took Faith to Move Mountains: Virginia is the First Southern State to Abolish the Death Penalty

Marijuana Legislation: A Start but Not Far Enough

Criminal Justice Reforms

All Virtual General Assembly Has Ended

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Commission Discusses Proposed Timeline, FOIA Rules

Co-chair Greta Harris presided over the second meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission on Tuesday morning, March 30.  The Commissioners considered the proposed timeline  which is summarized in our March 25 blog post.

The first point for discussion was whether the days of the meetings could be changed.  It was recommended that the Division of Legislative Services staff (DLS) would poll members offline so personal schedules could be consulted in more detail.  The next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 13 but watch this blog for alerts to any changes.

Census data now expected to arrive by mid-August.

 It was then announced that rather than September 30, the Census data would be available the second week in August.  It will be in a different format than the data which will follow in late September. 

Meg Lamb, an attorney with DLS, told the commission the state should not have any problem using the data despite the format questions.  The numbers for prison reallocation were compiled in summer 2020 so these figures also will not be an issue.  The mid-August arrival of the Census data will trigger the “45 day” timeline. 

Introduction to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Commission members will generally rely on DLS for guidance, but an introduction to FOIA was provided for the benefit of new Commission members and the public.  Alan Gernhardt, executive director, Freedom of Information Advisory Council,  presented the slide program. (Begins on page 4.)

Of note –

  • Anytime three or more members of the Commission gather to talk Commission business, they are subject to Virginia’s Open Meetings Law which means they must provide the public with advance notice, the opportunity to watch, and minutes.
  • DLS staff do not count toward the number of members.
  • For Commission work, legislator members must follow the same rules as citizen members. (Usual exemptions for legislators under FOIA will not apply.)  This question was specifically asked by citizen commissioner Sean Kumar.
  • All votes must be taken at properly noticed public meetings. No secret ballots or even written ballots. Otherwise, votes are void.
  • Each Commissioner should use their special Commission email addresses and use DLS to distribute information.
  • Social media may be public records and subject to FOIA if used to transact public business.
  • Penalties through the courts can be costly.
  • The Zoom “Chat” is FOIAble and could become a closed meeting within a meeting. Alan Gernhardt pointed out that a Commissioner on the phone would not be able to see the “Chat”.   More to come on this issue.

For more specifics, we were referred to the Virginia Code on FOIA.

Public Comments

Written Public Comments are available on the DLS website.

18 members of the public also registered to speak but, in the end, 12 spoke.  Some referred to their written public comments which were previously submitted.  There were a wide range of comments:

  • Several who represented advocacy groups stressed the importance of transparency, fostering citizen participation, and ensuring meetings are more accessible to the public. It is essential that meetings and materials be available in Spanish and other languages.
  • Detailed suggestions were presented for a Commission website and included a 5-state survey of the best features of other Commission websites.
  • Citizen members were urged to be the voice of Virginians and stand up against incumbent protection.
  • Individuals also presented a redistricting strategy for Virginia congressional districts and called for the city of Lynchburg to be unified in one district.

TIP – If you want to speak before the Commission, you need to register through the DLS site when the meeting is announced.  This needs to be done early as requests to speak are not accepted the morning of the meeting.  You will then receive a Zoom link that you should use to access the meeting so they can connect to you when it is your time to comment.  It cannot be shared with others.

Observer Corps Reporters: 

Carolyn Caywood, LWV-SHR

Chris DeRosa, LWV-ARL

Peggy Layne, LWV-MC

Fran Larkins, LWV-FRA

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Census Bureau Says 2020 Data Will Be Released by September 30

The U.S. Census Bureau on February 12 committed to release the data necessary to complete the latest round of redistricting by September 30, 2021. The announcement almost certainly means that Virginia legislative districts cannot be redrawn in time for the 2021 state legislative races. 

In its announcement, the bureau said it would release the data for all states at the same time. Before Covid-19 delayed and impacted the implementation of the 2020 Census, the bureau provided the data for Virginia as early as March, which would have given the redistricting commission adequate time to complete its work, under the requirements of the recently passed constitutional amendment. 

Still to be determined is when new maps would be imposed on the General Assembly. Both members of the House of Delegates and the Senate would normally run again in 2023. Under the new schedule, maps could still be redrawn in time for the 2022 congressional elections. 

Click here for bureau’s full press release. 

The National Conference of State Legislatures has published a guide detailing how delays in the Census will impact the schedule for all states, including Virginia. 

Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-VA, Falls Church

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League and Partners Pledge to Help with “Communities of Interest”

The League of Women Voters of Virginia today joined with other redistricting reform organizations to encourage the new Virginia Redistricting Commission to help citizens define their “communities of interest” when the commission begins drawing legislative and congressional district maps. Communities of interest must now be considered when the maps are drawn. The coalition pledged to work with the commission to help citizens understand the tools that can be used to define their communities and to encourage them to share their perspectives with the commission. Here is the text of the letter: 

February 9, 2021

To the members of the Virginia Redistricting Commission:

We represent a coalition of organizations who advocate for fair districts, transparency, and public
involvement in the redistricting process. We were gratified to see the outpouring of applications from
Virginians willing to serve on the Commission and have high expectations for not only the final maps,
but also the public and transparent process that will create them.
Though the members of this Commission represent much of the diversity of the Commonwealth, no
group of 16 individuals can be sufficiently familiar with every community in order to accurately represent
their interests. To that end, the public input mechanisms built into this process are crucial. They alone,
however, will not meet the high standards we believe Virginians expect in this newly transparent
process. Therefore, our coalition seeks to supplement the outreach done by the Commission in order to
facilitate broader, meaningful public engagement.

Because communities of interest are now legally required to be taken into account when drawing
district lines, it is imperative that the public is able to effectively communicate to the Commission what
they believe their communities of interest are. This Commission and the surrounding reforms have
created space for unprecedented public involvement, and we are committed to ensuring that
involvement takes place.

Using public community mapping tools – created by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project (available at
representable.org and explained at gerrymander.princeton.edu/virginia-report) and the Metric Geometry
and Gerrymandering Group at Tufts University (available at districtr.org) – we seek to provide
community members with the tools to submit quantitative recommendations to the Commission.
Individuals will use these tools to precisely show the boundaries of their communities and their ideal
districts to accurately represent their communities’ interests. We will also host numerous virtual events
to collect public input and we plan to invite all Commissioners to participate in hopes you will take the
opportunity to attend.

We stand ready to assist, to engage, to educate, and to participate in this historic process. Together,
we will ensure the most public, transparent redistricting process Virginia has ever seen and to deliver
the most accurate, community-based legislative districts that residents of the Commonwealth so rightly
deserve.

Sincerely,

Kathay Feng, National Redistricting and Representation Director, Common Cause
Michael Futrell, President, National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization
Natalie Snider, State Advocacy Director, AARP Virginia
Phillip Thomson, Executive Director, National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization
Deb Wake, President, League of Women Voters of Virginia
Samuel Wang, Princeton Gerrymandering Project
Liz White, Executive Director, OneVirginia2021 Foundation

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV, Falls Church

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What’s Your Community of Interest?

As the Virginia Redistricting Commission begins to draw new district maps, it must respect “Communities of Interest” (COI), as stated in SB 717 and HB 1255.

The specific language from the bills is as follows:
“Districts shall be drawn to preserve communities of interest. For purposes of this subdivision, a “community of interest” means a neighborhood or any geographically defined group of people living in 40 an area who share similar social, cultural, and economic interests. A “community of interest” does not include a community based upon political affiliation or relationship with a political party, elected official, or candidate for office.”

Some communities have been cracked or split into 2 or more House of Delegate, State Senate, and/or Congressional districts. Other communities find themselves drawn into a district that is comprised primarily of another County or jurisdiction. In both instances, the voters find that their voices aren’t being heard or respected by their elected leaders.

The League of Women Voters of Virginia partnered with teams from Princeton and Tufts Universities to introduce and train Virginians on how to draw maps of their COI. Virginians can use their easy-to-use, open source tools to identify their Communities of Interest, draw maps of their COIs, and share them with the Redistricting Commission. The goal is to help voters to participate in the redistricting process by creating as many community maps as possible and sharing them – especially hard-to-count populations that might be overlooked in the redistricting process.

The team at Tufts University’s Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG) has created the DistrictR tool. You can visit their website for more information. 

The Princeton University/Princeton Gerrymandering Team has created the Representable tool. You can find information at the Representable website.  

The LWV-VA is attempting to collect as many COI maps using the Representable tool. Start at this link in order to add your map to the League’s “mapping drive” folder

Later, you can submit your COI maps to the Commission for their consideration.

To learn more, you may view the recordings of the training and information sessions on our YouTube channel .  

 

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Learn More About the Citizen Members

Thanks to the transparency embodied in the new constitutional amendment, you can read the full applications of the citizens who were appointed to the commission. Click here for our summary of their backgrounds and excerpts from their letters of recommendation. Click here to download a zip file containing their complete applications and letters of reference, as well as those of the 62 individuals who were finalists.

–Fran Larkins, LWV-VA Fredericksburg, and Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-VA, Falls Church

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Issue Groups

League members are invited to join one of our issue groups by selecting their interests HERE. Issue Groups meet: Affordable Housing: third Wednesday of the month at 12 p.m. Behavioral Health: third Tuesday of the month at 6:30pm–SPECIAL JOINT MEETING WITH JUSTICE REFORM APRIL 16, no meeting April 20 Campaign Finance Reform: second Wednesday of the month at 2 p.m.

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Amendment #1 Passes at the Polls

Citizen-led, transparent process to replace current, broken system

Virginians voted Tuesday to establish a bipartisan and citizen-led redistricting commission, thwarting the practice of politicians picking their constituents.  

The Amendment, which took two years to bring to the voters, after having to pass two different sessions of the General Assembly, creates a redistricting commission rather than having maps drawn by the majority party. Districts will need to be drawn in accordance with strict requirements of federal and state laws that address racial and ethnic fairness and provide opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.

“Politicians have benefitted from a system where they picked their own districts for too long. The amendment provides for a citizen-led commission which will take redistricting out of backroom political maneuverings,” said Deb Wake, President of the League of Women Voters of Virginia. “All of the proceedings of this commission are open to the public and transparent, bringing much needed sunlight to the process. Thanks to Governor Northam for inserting enabling language so the process can start immediately.”

The League has been working for fair redistricting for many generations and will continue to work to make sure there is citizen involvement and oversight of the process. We support #PeoplePoweredFairMaps.

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