The Bulletin

Open records advocate urges Va. Supreme Court to change system for redistricting comments

By: - December 3, 2021 12:01 am

The Supreme Court of Virginia building in Downtown Richmond. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury)

Since the Supreme Court of Virginia took over the redistricting process, all public comments been compiled on a single document more than 400 pages long that’s tough to navigate and infrequently updated, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government says.

Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the nonprofit group that promotes expanded access to public information, urged the court in a Nov. 24 email to change its document management system for cataloguing public comments about the redistricting process. 

“The redistricting process has a finite window in which to operate. There is no time to waste. It is imperative that the public and the press has up-to-date and easily parsed information about who has submitted comments and when,” she wrote.

She cited the lack of an easy-to-follow timeline and lack of automatic updates as the two biggest problems with the current document.

“Many models for providing indexed, automatically updated document repositories already exist,” Rhyne said. “These systems and others like them provide an easy-to-follow timeline of who has submitted comments and when, making it much more useful to citizens to zero in on comments of importance to them, without the endless scrolling of the current single-PDF system.”

There are periods of time in which the document is not updated for more than  24 hours, Rhyne said. The last message that could be seen in the document at 4:14 p.m. Thursday is from 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 1. Since the document is not updated automatically, the public will not be able to know if someone has submitted comments during that time and if they need a response, Rhyne said. 

“It’s important for the process to be as open and transparent as possible, so we can learn from it as we move into the future,” Rhyne said. 

In her email to the court, Rhyne suggested free and low-cost document management software such as Google Drive, Dropbox, Sync, Evernote and Scribd. Rhyne also pointed to Virginia’s Regulatory Town Hall’s system as an example, which shows the number of open forums and how many comments they have.

The only response Rhyne has received so far was to let her know that the message would be forwarded to the appropriate personnel, she said. She was not told whether the system would be changed.

The court did not respond to a request for comment.

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Jackie Llanos Hernandez
Jackie Llanos Hernandez

Virginia Mercury intern Jackie Llanos Hernandez is a junior at the University of Richmond studying journalism and anthropology. Jackie grew up in Colombia before moving to Virginia. Jackie is also the investigative and multimedia editor at the independent student-run newspaper, The Collegian. She can be reached at [email protected]