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Politics and Nearing Deadline Underlines Conflict on Redistricting Commission

A sign sits on a table in a corporate-looking office building. It reads "Public Hearing, Registration for Public Comment." Chairs are in the background, on a grey carpet under fluorescent lighting.
Jahd Khalil

Lawyers hired by the Virginia Redistricting Commission have advised the body to revise existing maps rather than start from scratch, the co-chair of the commission said in a committee meeting Tuesday.

The question of whether the next voting districts are totally new or just modifications of the current districts looks like it will cause some conflict between the members that do and do not hold elected office. The commission is split in half between those two types of members.

“With all due respect to Senator Barker the way it was done before kind of resulted in the districts we have now that the citizens overwhelmingly are telling us they don't want,” said Sean Kumar, a commissioner who is not a member of the General Assembly.

Tuesday’s meeting was more active than many previous meetings. Commissioners debated how best to split that work and balance political viability, bringing the newer citizen members in conflict with seasoned legislators.

“I think the commission needs to all just make sure at some point we go over how many ways this thing can fail,” said Senator Steve Newman, a Republican representing Lynchburg.

The debate was most active during discussions of how to divide subcommittees to draw maps. The working proposal was to have two subcommittees, one to draw maps for the House of Delegates and another for the Senate. Largely legislators objected to having House members draw Senate maps and vice versa, and although there was some crossover, the non-legislative members were on the other side of the debate.

“My view is as a citizen member, I'm never going to have the knowledge that the legislators have as far as those relationships. I'm just trying to do my job as a citizen here,” said James Abrenio.

“If it fails because of politics - maybe it doesn't even make it out of this commission because of politics - but that'll be seen and it'll be on the record,” said Kumar. “We owe it to the Commonwealth to try to do it the right way.”

The political considerations and splits on the commission exacerbate a larger issue. The commissioners said in a number of ways that they still don’t have the help they need or enough time to complete their work. Their next scheduled meeting is August 16th. That’s the day they’ll receive census data, and when their 45-day timeline to complete maps starts.

With the last public hearing before mapping begins, public outreach has been under scrutiny by advocacy groups. In public hearings, groups like One Virginia 2021 have brought out the lion’s share of public commenters, raising questions about other citizens’ ability to hear about the process that could determine voting districts and possibly shifts in political power and representation.

The commission has entered final negotiations with a communications firm that will also run outreach to notify citizens of the commission’s work and their ability to provide comment, according to one of the Department of Legislative Services staffers who assist the commission. But it still has not hired the firm.

The commission also still needs to hire many other people who are key to the process. The work of actually drawing the maps is one example. Co-Chair Mackenzie Babichenko said they can’t rely on the Department of Legislative Services for that.  “In speaking with them, in order to get all of these maps completed in the timeline, we need more assistance and that’s even just from the technical aspect, somebody going in and clicking the buttons with our advice, not even doing the entire maps,” she said.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.
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