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With Commission Deadlocked on Race's Relationship to Districts, Most Public Comment Focuses on Local Concerns

The Virginia Redistricting Commission gathering public comment for the Central Region, on October 6th, 2021.
Virginia Redistricting Commission
The Virginia Redistricting Commission gathering public comment for the Central Region, on October 6th, 2021.

Commissioners hoped public comment would guide their work ahead of a deadline Sunday. There was widespread public participation, but relatively few commenters spoke about race and ethnicity’s place in the new maps despite that issue being the main roadblock to consensus maps.

Last week Greta Harris, a co-chair of the Redistricting Commission said the thought of Friday’s meeting quote “turned her stomach.”

“I don't know how we will integrate,” she said, referring to the competing partisan proposals. “I think people have put their heels in from a partisan perspective and not from the moral perspective of trying to ensure every citizen, every citizen, especially citizens of color to have their voice heard because for so, so many years we were denied that and that's why it's so important.”

The Commission has made some compromises, but the largest point of contention remaining is how to draw maps where minorities live.

If the commission wants to hit a key deadline Sunday, they’ll have to vote on a consensus map that addresses this question during their Friday meeting, or during a tentatively scheduled meeting Saturday.

Last week commissioners did not agree on a single map to present to the public, in large part due to this question. The hope was that public comment could help guide their work. But few people spoke about race and ethnicity in public hearings for the regions where it's most important.

Some people did comment on the issue.

“It is extremely important that we protect black voters and voters of color when it's time to draw these maps,” said Monica Hutchinson from Henrico. “We know that historically that has not been done when we didn't have protections in place.

Hutchinson said that the maps should also ensure all elected officials consider Black voters’ concerns. The Voting Rights Act requires that Black voters aren’t “packed” into districts. Republican and Democratic counsel hired by the commission disagree on what constitutes packing.

Commissioners agree that The Voting Rights Act requires African Americans to be the decisive vote in some districts in Southside and areas surrounding Richmond and Hampton Roads. But people of color who are not Black make up a larger and larger portion of Virginians, and making them an important voting block.

The draft maps drawn by Democrats give that broader pool of minority Virginians a higher priority than Republican proposals. And the Democrat-drawn maps draw fewer Black Virginians into the Voting Rights Act districts.

If commissioners don’t send the legislature a map this weekend, they’ll get a 14-day extension. But that will leave only one chance to get the maps approved by the General Assembly without any suggestions from lawmakers. If they fail to submit maps, or the General Assembly doesn’t approve the maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia will redraw the state's political districts, again.

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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