After more than a decade of work by citizen activists, passage by two sessions of the General Assembly and support from more than 60 percent of the voters last November, Virginia finally has a bipartisan, citizen-led Redistricting Commission, getting ready to redraw the legislative and congressional districts this year.
The road to the commission was not easy. And its 16 members (eight citizens, eight legislators) also faced some unexpected challenges — including delayed Census data — as they began their work.
But now it’s time for the rest of us to start paying closer attention. This week, the commission began holding public hearings, both virtually and in-person. While citizens may submit comments in writing or appear at any hearing, the commission’s in-person hearing for Virginia’s “Northern” region is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Tuesday July 27 at George Mason University. More hearings will be held in September to receive comments on the commission’s proposed maps.
In the commission’s first six months, we have already seen a big improvement over the way redistricting was done in the past.
The first difference is that citizens are actually “in the room,” whether that room is on Zoom or in a Capitol hearing room, now that the pandemic meeting restrictions have been lifted. More than 1,200 Virginians answered the call and applied to serve on the commission. Five retired Virginia Circuit Court judges selected eight of them from the 62 persons nominated by the General Assembly’s four party leaders.
Second, all commission deliberations have been open. Members — as well as the Division of Legislative Services staff — have been careful about respecting the amendment’s transparency requirements, as well as the Freedom of Information Act. Even when the commission could not meet in person for its first six months, the meetings were all publicized in advance and opened to the public for viewing and to comment. All sessions have also been recorded and made available for later viewing. Summaries have been posted online, as well as all the public comments that the commission has received.
Third, the commission has demonstrated a refreshing commitment to bipartisanship. Early on, members decided to name co-chairs, one citizen from each party, for both the commission and its subcommittees. The co-chairs have rotated the leadership of meetings and worked with the DLS staff to shape their agendas. The next test may come July 19; with the resignation of one of the Republican citizen-members, the commission must pick a replacement from a Republican list with the support of at least one Democratic member.
During their deliberations, several citizen members have spoken eloquently about their desire to be part of this “new day” of redistricting in our state. As the commission begins to reach out intentionally to the public, it’s important for its members, both citizens and legislators, to hear several messages loud and clear. These relate to important aspects of the commission’s work that have not yet been resolved:
Map-drawing is complicated, and the commission needs to clearly articulate its priorities among the criteria now specified by the Virginia Constitution and other laws. Those criteria include preserving the voting rights of minorities, drawing districts that are compact and contiguous, and that try to respect jurisdictional boundaries.
In drawing lines, the commission must also resist the impulse to consider where incumbent legislators live. There will inevitably be “winners” and “losers” when maps are proposed. But the commission’s lodestar must be that the interests of citizens must come first — before the needs of legislators to preserve their power.
Citizens must speak up to help the commission identify their “communities of interest,” a new state statutory requirement. Northern Virginia is filled with diverse neighborhoods whose voice should not be diluted by ignoring their more informal boundaries and chopping them up. New software tools can help citizens highlight these boundaries for the commission, but even speaking up or writing a letter can make a difference.
Considering the partisan gerrymandering that both parties have done in recent years, it may be best for the commission to “start from scratch” when it draws its maps. It may also be best served by hiring a professional to do the drawing, under the commission’s watchful eye. Members will have only 45 days in which to draw the legislative maps after they receive the final Census data. Enlisting this kind of help will ensure that the legislator-members who are experienced map drawers don’t control the process in an inappropriate way.
Up-to-date details on contacting the commission are available on its website. Speak up now — or wait another decade!