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Ahead of Public Comment, What Do Analysts See in Virginia's Draft Redistricting Proposals?

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
The public will have the opportunity to comment on draft proposals for Virginia's new political lines this week.

With a week of public hearings and over 40 maps online, analysts gave their opinion and rundown of how the maps distribute Virginians across the Commonwealth into different political districts.

The commission’s failure to present the public with one set of maps after a meeting Saturday left the public with no official, or even informal, direction on what the 16-member commission was considering.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project is a non-partisan group of mathematicians and lawyers that analyze redistricting. Helen Brewer, a legal analyst there, said they used recent data on elections and voting behavior to assign Virginia’s maps a grade on partisanship.

“The House of Delegates maps have been performing pretty well on those metrics,” she said. “The State Senate draft maps... some of them have been pretty good, but there was one draft ...that failed our partisan fairness metrics.”

That Senate map she referred to was the map drawers’ attempt to combine Republican and Democratic drafts.

How to comply with laws protecting minority voting power has been the most intractable topic of debate throughout the commission’s tenure.

Democratic consultants and commissioners have said the Republican maps may be putting too many African-American voters into the few districts that have been drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

“It seems like that might be going on with some of the draft senate maps,” Brewer said. “I'm not totally sure that we're seeing that replicated in the house maps.”

Brewer did say that minorities are typically undercounted in the census. So even if those districts are close to an ideal size, minorities’ share of the population there was probably higher than what census data says.

“If you overpopulate the district based on the census numbers, then based on who responded to the census, you have some extra people in that district.”

According to analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, the latest Republican maps have the most African-American majority districts.

VPAP’s tally of districts said that Republicans’ draft proposals would have fewer districts with all minorities as a majority of the population, and fewer districts with “opportunity” districts, where all minorities make up between 40-50% of the district’s population.

On Saturday, the commission failed to propose one set of maps, instead hoping that public comment over this week will help them narrow down on consensus.

Liz White, the Executive Director of OneVirginia2021, which pushed for an independent commission said in a statement that Saturday's “meeting was frustrating as Commissioners did not come together to present one set of maps for citizens to consider during the public hearings next week. It is the duty of this body to ensure that their work is successful, and it is past time to build consensus to move forward in drawing fair district maps.”

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.