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Virginia Redistricting Commission delays deadline, debates map drawers and plans ahead of important decisions

The change means Virginians should expect a first draft of new House of Delegates and State Senate maps by October 10 and new Congressional maps by October 25.

NORFOLK, Va. — Virginia’s new bipartisan redistricting commission has big decisions to make that will shape the future of elections in the Commonwealth.

Which organization(s) will help draw the maps? Do commissioners work with existing maps or start fresh with a blank slate? How will this process avoid political partisanship, despite polarization among commissioners and legal counsel?

On Monday, the Virginia Redistricting Commission voted 14 to 1 to delay the official start of the map-drawing process to August 26. 

Despite the release of U.S. Census data last week, commissioners said the data is incompatible for the redistricting process right now. A consultant is reformatting the information so it can be used in drawing new Virginia lines, and commissioners expect to receive it on August 26.

"That would be a requirement, a fundamental requirement of how you draw the districts," said State Senator George Barker, a commission member.

The change means Virginians should expect a first draft of new House of Delegates and State Senate maps by October 10 and new Congressional maps by October 25.

This is the first year redistricting will be in the hands of a bipartisan commission with citizen members, after voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2020.

"I think it’s a lot more complicated and we have not moved with a lot of speed in anything we’ve done here because of the difficulty involved," said Richard Harrell, a redistricting commissioner, when discussing the next steps at the meeting Monday.

On Tuesday, the commission is set to vote on who will help draw the maps. A University of Richmond Geographic Information System organization is among the options.

"I would be in favor of having them as a single source for the entire commission to do map drawing," said Greta Harris, Co-chair of the Redistricting Commission

Some commissioners said they favor the single University of Richmond group over hiring two map drawing consultants with competing Republican and Democratic ties.

“Having two partisan map drawers draw maps seems like it’s setting us up for failure," said Delegate Marcus Simon, a commissioner.

However, one of the Republican lawyers questioned the neutrality of the UR organization. He said he does not have a problem with hiring the group, but said there could be a "perception" of bias due to the fact the GIS group has previously reported on issues such as redlining. 

Commissioners are also set to decide if they should start the process with existing maps, or begin with blank maps.

"So, not necessarily be afraid to make sweeping changes, but based on the short timeframe, the legal counsel has recommended they start with existing lines, I know that is not a popular suggestion with many members of the public," said Liz White, Director of OneVirginia2021, a redistricting advocacy organization.

For many, the intent of the commission is to remove politics from the process.

One public commenter told commissioners their success will be measured on how well they can avoid making decisions for political power.

“It’s not about being liked, it’s about doing what is right, I just want to encourage you all as we go into this to not look at this through a lens of what this means politically, but look through it as a lens of how is this best for the Commonwealth of Virginia," he said. 

The Redistricting Commission plans to receive a report on Racially Polarized Voting -- methods and processes that identify areas of the state where people are making voting decisions primarily based on race -- on August 31.

A lawyer told commissioners the report helps them comply with the Voting Rights Act.

The commission is obligated by law to consider "communities of interest" in drawing the lines. 

If you feel your district is fractured or want to recommend changes, you can draw maps and submit your recommendations online, or sign up to speak at various public hearings over the next few months.