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Public focuses on Richmond suburbs and Congress in SCOVA's first public hearing on redistricting

Over 60 people signed up to speak at the Supreme Court's first live comment hearing for redistricting.
Supreme Court of Virginia
Over 60 people signed up to speak at the Supreme Court's first live comment hearing for redistricting.

In the first of two live sessions for public comment on a redistricting proposal before the Virginia Supreme Court, speakers focused on experts’ choices to move a congressional district across the state and how to split up Richmond's suburbs.

Lawmakers spoke alongside their voters in the three-hour session Wednesday.

Over the course of 2021 the Virginia Redistricting Commission received thousands of public comments about the effort to draw new political maps for the state. After the commission failed to submit maps to the General Assembly to approve, the Virginia Supreme Court took over the process, and is now soliciting public comment after two court-appointed experts submitted their work last week.

Sean Trende and Bernard Grofman, who were nominated by Republican and Democrat legislative leadership, respectively, outlined their rationale for their maps in a memo that was posted alongside new maps for US Congress, the State Senate, and the House of Delegates.

The two political scientists started from scratch and “nested” districts, drawing congressional districts, dividing those into senate districts, and the senate districts into house districts. The proposals significantly depart from current lines.

Their work on how they drew the suburbs of Richmond was a particular focus of the speakers. The special masters said in their memo they attempted to minimize county splits but the suburbs of Richmond saw a few splits. One speaker was concerned about how grouping suburbs with rural counties would affect both constituencies.

There was relatively little comment on how the proposed maps drew as many as half of the sitting state lawmakers into the same districts. The redistricting commissions’ work had labored over the question of how to treat incumbents, eventually voting to consider incumbency. Lawmakers had argued that it was necessary for the General Assembly to pass the maps.

US Congressional maps also received a notable amount of attention. The special masters moved central Virginia’s 7th District to northern Virginia. More Democrats live there, making that competitive district now lean towards electing a Democrat.

Generally the proposed maps make the congressional delegation bluer overall, with a 6-5 majority for Democrats in Virginia’s delegation likely.

Some speakers criticized the 1st congressional district’s proposed borders as grouping residents living north of Richmond with voters on the Chesapeake bay. One argued they had little in common.

The court is accepting written comments until December 20th. Another public comment session Friday will be streamed online.

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.