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