The Virginia Redistricting Commission is facing key decisions about how it will create legislative maps. The U.S. Census Bureau is expected to publish 2020 Census data later this month. When the commission receives the data on August 16, that will launch a 45-day deadline for the commission to create the maps for House of Delegates and Senate. But the commission is still debating key questions about how to draw the maps: should subcommittees be used, who should be on them, and should the maps be based on the current maps.
That’s complicated by the timeline – citizen members are warning that they feel unprepared and want more meetings before the data arrives in two weeks. However, legislator members of the commission are tied up in the General Assembly Special Session through next week. The commission’s Tuesday meeting was scheduled to occur mid-afternoon – but complications with the Special Session schedule forced the meeting to be postponed until late Tuesday evening. That meant that the legal counsel hired by the commission couldn’t be present in person, key for citizen members who want to dialogue with the lawyers about the decisions the commission faces.
“This is a lot of stuff coming, and I’m looking at our scheduling, and I’ve mentioned this before, but I just think we need more time,” citizen member James Abrenio said, arguing for more meetings to be scheduled. “I want to get public input on their thoughts because we’re kind of making these decisions very quickly.”
The commission has hired a two-pronged legal counsel team – one Democratic and one Republican. The teams are making their recommendations to the commission in a unified way. If they have a consensus on a question, they just report the decision without reporting the discussion; if there’s disagreement, they provide the two sides.
Because of the tight timeline, the council recommended that the new maps be based on the old ones. Some of the citizen members are worried that approach won’t allow the new maps to address problems in the current maps.
“It doesn’t mean that we can’t make sweeping changes to the existing district lines, but just given the time that we’re working within that we start with existing maps and make adjustments both big and small from there,” Co-chair Greta Harris said.
Harris suggested a system of two subcommittees, one to work on House of Delegates maps, and one to work on Senate maps. The subcommittees would each have a mix of senators and delegates alongside citizen members. Additionally, they would be balanced between Republican and Democratic parties. She said it would be easier to schedule dates for the subcommittees with just eight members each than to try to find days all 16 commissioners could meet.
Several legislators objected to having delegates work on Senate maps and senators work on House of Delegates maps. Legislators emphasized that they’re also citizens who are motivated to see the commission succeed.
“I do believe the Senate members at least understand the body, the Senate, that this has to go before, to get it passed,” Senator Stephen Newman (R-Bedford) said. “If we’re not careful here, pulling people away from the only way that this very delicate balance, and I didn’t write it, but this very delicate balance works, we’re making I think a pretty big mistake.”
Without letting the legislators focus on their area of expertise, delegates on House districts and senators on Senate districts, Newman said, “Your chances of getting this through the eye of the needle get much more difficult.”
Several citizen members, including Harris, argued in favor of the mixed subcommittees.
Sean Kumar said, “To this point that Senator Newman has mentioned a couple times [in] I think one of our earlier meetings, ‘Well, this could all fail.’ That’s fine, it could. But we would be failing at its core by not trying to do things in a way that’s consistent with what the public has said, by doing things inherently different. The full commission will have to vote on whatever the subcommittees come up with.”
Those details will be finalized at the next commission meeting; a date has not been announced.
Photo “Virginia Capitol” by Mike Fonseca CC2.0