Virginia’s Redistricting Commission has its first draft maps. They look… normal?

By: - September 2, 2021 6:25 pm

One of two draft state Senate maps for Northern Virginia compared to the existing map, which a state senator called “the biggest spaghetti you’ve ever seen.”

The Virginia Redistricting Commission got its first look at draft General Assembly maps Thursday as consultants delivered proposals for part of Northern Virginia with districts that look far more normally shaped than the ones that exist now.

A pair of consultants drew their proposed House of Delegates and Senate districts from scratch, following the guidance of the new commission that was supposed to empower citizens to lead the process previously dominated by incumbent legislators. 

The initial result was maps with more straight lines and less meandering squiggles. That contrast was confirmed, the consultants said, by algorithmic scores showing their maps are indeed more compact than the existing ones.

The consultant said they didn’t consider incumbents’ home addresses, a measure that might have made the proposed maps hew more closely to existing ones, when creating their drafts.

“We consciously did not look at incumbents, partly because of the time crunch and partly because we had not received direction from the commission,” said Ken Strasma, a Democratic-aligned map-drawing consultant working with the commission.

The drafts seemed to alarm some Democratic legislators serving on the commission.

“There’s a lot of incumbent duplication that happens with this map,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said of Strasma’s proposal.

Perhaps jokingly, Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said his reward for advocating for an independent redistricting commission was to be drawn into territory currently represented by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax.

“I appreciate the draft part of it,” said Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax. “Because otherwise I would be submitting my resignation from the Senate today.”

Throughout the meeting, there were repeated caveats that the maps were a first crack and could be subject to change as the commission takes a closer look at them and takes into account more granular local ties like school attendance zones or communities that cross city-county lines.

“Obviously the representatives from Northern Virginia have more knowledge around where some of these lines are,” said Greta Harris, the commission’s Democratic co-chair. “But I would encourage all commission members to dig in a little bit deeper and blow them up and take a look.”

Republican commissioners were largely silent during the initial discussion of how to carve up Northern Virginia, a heavily Democratic region where Republican-leaning districts have become mathematically impossible. The main friction in redistricting for the region will largely center on how dramatically Democratic districts will change and how many retirements or Democratic primaries might follow.

To draw new districts by early October, the commission is splitting the state up into eight regions. The first maps focused on Fairfax and Arlington counties and the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax. The commission began with that region partly because it’s not politically competitive and doesn’t have the same Voting Rights Act concerns as regions where Black voters make up a larger segment of the population.

Two sets of consultants, one Republican and one Democratic, have been hired to prepare maps the commission will use as a starting point.

How the various proposals will be merged or whittled down remains an open question.

“Are they trying to come up with maps together?,” Democratic commissioner James Abrenio asked at Thursday’s meeting, which was held virtually due to a COVID-19 exposure at an in-person meeting last week.

A lawyer for the commission said the consultants hadn’t had much time to compare notes before the meeting but they may be able to find areas of overlap as the process moves forward.

Though the switch to an independent commission, a change voters approved last year, was pitched as a way to bring more transparency to the redistricting process, several speakers encouraged the commission to do better on that front.

Da’Quan Love, executive director of the Virginia NAACP, suggested the backchannel work and conversations happening between commissioners, lawyers and consultants looked a lot like the “smoke-filled backrooms” of the old system, which allowed General Assembly majorities to draw lines in private.

“It seems like we’ve just replaced cigars with consultants,” Love said.

Liz White, executive director of redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021, asked the commission to do better about posting and publicizing meeting materials in advance instead of leaving it to “a handful of us hardcore nerds” to track every development.

“Now that maps are being drafted,” she said, “public input is more important than ever.”

Information about how to provide public feedback is available on the commission website.

The commission didn’t take any votes at Thursday’s meeting but plans to meet again next week.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.