In 2020, Virginia voters passed Amendment 1 to create a political commission
tasked with drawing congressional and state legislative districts. After
taking seven years to reach the ballot, Amendment 1 created the Virginia
Redistricting Commission (VRC). The commission includes eight Republicans
and eight Democrats, with a mix of appointed legislators and community
members. This partisan divide created an opportunity for members of the
commission to simply vote as a partisan bloc against anything they did not explicitly design and endorse. As a result of this, neither set of maps could be finished as the commission refused to find a compromise. The maps ended up being drawn by a special master and voted on by the State Supreme Court (SCOVA).
Virginia also ended the practice of prison gerrymandering and established a state Voting Rights Act in 2020. Both went into effect during the 2021 redistricting process. The state utilized ‘last known address’ data from the Department of Corrections to reallocate the prison population into the new state and congressional district maps
Community of Interest Story
State redistricting law states that districts must respect “patterns of geography, social interaction, trade, political ties, and common interests.”82 Advocates have found that this was not always adhered to this cycle. In 2012, community organizers worked diligently to ensure that the town of Huntington was kept together with the school district and county (Chittenden) it is zoned with. Unfortunately, it was not successful, and residents tried again to advocate for this change in 2021. Once again, Huntington was separated from its county and school district.
The Virginia Counts Coalition (VCC) worked with partners to create COI maps, using a racially polarized voting analysis, for statewide and congressional districts. To ensure the best possible maps for the
state coalition, the VCC enlisted the help of Geographic Information System (GIS) analysts from the University of Richmond. This team was initially considered as a potential candidate to aid the work of the VRC but was dismissed due to a failed vote in which eight commissioners elected to have partisan map-drawers instead of the non-partisan academic team. The VCC’s GIS team was instructed to help create maps that explicitly prioritized two criteria:
- Maximizing the number of districts in which more than 50% of voters are people of color.
- Maximizing the number of districts in which communities of interest, as advocated for and definedby coalition members, are kept together.
With these two criteria in mind, the GIS team created initial rough drafts of Virginia State House maps and US House maps. From here, the team met consistently with VCC partners to receive feedback and ensure communities of interest were represented in the maps. These efforts totaled 100 hours of work from the GIS team over the five-week period for which maps needed to be drafted, completed, and submitted to the commission. It is unclear how, if at all, these maps were considered by the VRC.
While OneVirginia2021, another large redistricting coalition in the state, did not advocate for a particular community of interest, they did provide resources to empower others to advocate for their communities. They feel that by facilitating the organization of local groups and helping them effectively use the tools available, many communities were able to draw a direct line in many cases from public participation to the final map results.
Overall State Grade: C
Strong partisan division: The political commission structure, created less than a year after a divisive presidential race, could not escape the recent hyper-partisan divide. Both Republicans and Democrats favored partisan lawyers and map drawers instead of an independent third-party. These partisan divides made it difficult, if not impossible, for both parties to find consensus. Legislative commission members introduced maps in which they carved out districts to protect their incumbency. After the commission had dissolved, all Republican candidates submitted to be special masters were rejected by the SCOVA, which added to partisan rhetoric about the process. Additionally, a Republican legislator filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed, claiming that the new process for counting incarcerated populations impacted Republican districts like the one he represents.
Lack of public accessibility: Because the commission was brand-new and operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no guidelines on public outreach and accessibility. Hearings were held online during weekdays and many meetings were so poorly attended that commissioners logged out of the virtual platform early. The Virginia Counts Coalition urged the commission to expand hearings to the evening and weekends, but that request went unanswered. Spanish interpreters were available for the later online public hearings, but materials were not made available by the state in languages other than English, despite calls for such availability by various groups.
- An imperfect reform can still make a huge difference: The process to get an established redistricting commission took an incredible amount of work and public education. While the commission ultimately failed to create maps, the Supreme Court backstop also included in the amendment still produced strong district maps. Without the newly formed commission, the legislature likely would have drawn their own maps with little transparency or oversight as they did in previous decades.
- Make it a party: The Virginia Counts Coalition (VCC) created an advocacy platform for organizations across the state. There were thirty-four active members, anchored by the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, in the coalition during 2021. The VCC hosted watch parties for every hearing and collected testimony from organizations and community members ahead of each hearing. This allowed a space for people to react to the hearings and ask questions in real time, which fostered some of the missing ‘in- person’ connection. Over 500 individual public comments were submitted through these watch party events.
- Focus earlier on public engagement: Although the VCC and other organizations hoped to mobilize more communities to participate, those who did participate made a difference on the final outcomes. The coalition organizer, housed at the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, attempted to use a snowflake model to organize and educate community members. This did not work well because the coalition organizer had to train each person individually, which cut down on the scale of the campaign. Many people seemed much more interested in re-litigating the amendment than helping the process work for the public. The commission eventually brought on a communications firm to boost the commission’s work and the schedule of meetings and hearings. This firm was intended to proactively reach out to communities to encourage their participation, but they were hired far too late to be effective.
- Statutes can help produce better maps by filling gaps that constitutional language misses: The Voting Rights Act of Virginia prohibits partisan gerrymandering and provides protections for communities of interest. The disaggregation of prison population data ensured localities had accurate data when drawing new districts. Advocates strongly believe the state would have produced worse maps had those two new criteria not been in place.
- The commission process must be reformed: The VA Counts Coalition had a series of suggestions for commission reform:
- Remove all elected officials from the commission and specify that serving as an elected office is a disqualification for serving on the commission.
- Build in odd numbers of commissioners to help break tied votes.
- Create nonpartisan or independent commission seats to help break tied votes.
- Remove super majority expectations for voting by commissioners.
- Extend the timelines for which redistricting work must be completed.
- Prohibit partisan map drawers from the commission’s work.
- Prohibit partisan attorneys from the commission’s work.
- Build out more specific outreach plans for the commission to engage the public.
- Ensure adequate commission staffing throughout the process: The commission’s late start in community outreach and announcements made on the VRC website and social media created a deficit in communication on redistricting. This deficit could have been better managed if additional internal staff could be hired for the commission to help manage redistricting outreach, such as social media managers or fellows.
- Improve data analysis skills: It became increasingly clear how few people understood the work of drawing racially equitable maps from both a data analysis perspective and a Voting Rights Act perspective. This greatly limited the number of people to call upon for advice during map review and testimony. Incorporating a racially polarized voting analysis for coalition mapping purposes would be extremely helpful. Analyzing VCC maps was relentlessly time consuming. As a result of this, little other work could be completed at the same time. For future redistricting cycles, the coalition suggests hiring experts to quickly distill pertinent, highly complex data systems and legal impacts.