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With Citizen Maps of Increasing Importance, Critics Say Redistricting Outreach is Lacking

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
Critics have called into question commission's efforts to bring people out to public hearings and public meetings.

During a short break during a three-hour meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission meeting, a hot-mic moment demonstrated the possibilities and limitations of community input on the process.

Commissioners Brandon Hutchins and Senator George Barker stuck around during the break and chatted, but a microphone caught their exchange.

Hutchins was concerned with public reaction to the commission's decisions.

“They’re going to bomb up for this.”

“No actually, they won’t,” Barker replied. “It's actually a fairly small segment of the public that’s working on this issue...There will be some complaints here and there.”

To a certain degree, Barker is right. There have only been representatives from a few organizations at most meetings. One is the National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization. Tavorise Marks with the NBNRO said that’s the commission’s fault.

“The outreach from the commission has been horrible,” Marks said in an interview. “Before NBRNO and their group walked in the room, there were no black people….There were none! We walked in [and] that's when all of the diversity walked in.”

Many meetings are scheduled early in the morning to accommodate commissioners who have to travel. Marks said that makes it harder to accommodate many other people.

“Working individuals like me just can't always just take off to go sit at a commission meeting to make sure my voice is heard,” Marks said. “I think even to the construction of the meeting times and locations, aren't conducive for good community input for a good, particularly among those who are often left out and unheard, which is the Black, Latino, and Hispanic community.”

The commission had trouble getting bids for communication and outreach consultants to help with outreach. But it has two consultants on board now. They couldn’t be reached for comment on this story.

In a commission meeting representatives of the two consultancies said their goal is to maximize attendance at the public meetings. This outreach is important for people in communities that are included or divided by the new political lines.

In a public comment meeting for central Virginia, Ellie Tucker asked commissioners to look at her district.

Sitting at her kitchen table, accompanied by her husband who held up a map of her Congressional district, Tucker dialed into the meeting. She thinks her congressional district, which goes from the North Carolina border to Manassas, doesn’t group her with her community, which dilutes political power that would be stronger in numbers.

“Charlottesville Albemarle has more in common with Louisa orange and Culpeper than we do with southside, Virginia,” she said. “These past maps were drawn to gerrymander us to water down our vote.”

These types of messages are essential to the redistricting process, said Rebecca Green, who has taught election law at William & Mary for over 12 years.

Virginia requires that districts be drawn to preserve what’s called a “community of interest.”

“In Virginia we have adopted statutory language that requires that districts be drawn to preserve communities of interest,” she said. “In our sort of statutory framework that refers to things like neighborhoods, or a geographically defined group of people who share similar social, cultural and economic interests.”

But she also said that the way that communities of interest are defined in practice is how communities describe themselves.

The commission is supposed to be diverse, drawing from different ethnic, racial, and geographic groups in Virginia, so the commissioners have a better idea of communities around the state. But Green said that’s not where the best descriptions of communities of interest will come from.

“The commission isn't going to sit around and kind of come up with these. They're going to rely primarily on public comments and public input to define where those communities are”

Virginians can submit their own community of interest on the redistricting commission’s website. Two groups of map drawers that represent republican and democratic perspectives should then take those communities into account.

But so far, only six people have submitted maps.

The clock is ticking: The commission has to submit state legislative maps by October 10th.

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.