Virginia’s Redistricting Commission Meeting Recap
In 2020, Virginia voters approved a historic constitutional amendment that created the state’s first bipartisan and citizen-lead redistricting commission.
This significant reform aims to make headway in a years-long effort to combat partisan gerrymandering in the state.
Recently, Virginians began to see this commission in action. The Virginia Redistricting Commission convened virtually over Zoom on Tuesday, March 30th, 2021. In this meeting, the Commission outlined a loosely-defined schedule for its operations, with several regular meetings scheduled out until May 11th.
Presiding was co-chair Gretta Harris from Richmond. Speaking on behalf of the board, co-chair Harris remarked, “We are excited to be working in partnership with all members, as well as the citizens of the commonwealth of Virginia, to ensure a fair and just elections-system.”
Later in the meeting, Commissioner Amigo Wade presented a phased approach to organizing the Commission’s future operations. The commission will follow this structure:
Phase 1: Develop processes and preparatory training (Tuesday’s meeting was focused on FOIA; the next will be focused on meeting etiquette).
Phase 2: Education and training phase. Members will learn more about their specific role in redistricting and reapportionment. They will become familiar with their roles and responsibilities.
Phase 3: Focus on more specific commission planning. There are three basic goals: scheduling the first round of public hearings, establishing a work plan for map drawing, and establishing public participation guidelines for map drawing.
Phase 4: Focus on the practical preparation aspect of the job, with an emphasis on public outreach. There will be hands-on training for individual commission members (“map drawing labs”).
Phase 5: Receipt of census data and map drawing. A constitutional amendment says that these maps have to be submitted to the general assembly within 45 days of receipt of census data (to be received in August). Reallocation of prison census data will be incorporated into the map drawing process.
Phases may blend or change, and additional meetings may be added or the meeting cadence changed.
The bulk of March 30th’s meeting time was allocated to a presentation by Alan Gernhardt of the Virginia FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) Advisory Council. The presentation included details on regulation and compliance, components all necessary for effectively engaging the public’s trust.
The Virginia Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) exists to ensure ready access to public records and free entry to public meetings; both topics were addressed on March 30th’s meeting. Gernhardt’s FOIA Council is responsible for providing advice and recommendations to the legislature on changes in FOIA policy and FOIA law.
The FOIA Council is a state legislative branch advisory council. The Council answers questions from government, citizens, and media, and publishes advisory opinions and educational materials concerning FOIA.
In the context of the March 30th meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission, the FOIA Council educated the Commission and the public on the framework necessary for deciding how information is to be treated and how the public is granted access to that information along with guidelines for public meetings.
The mood was hopeful in the last half-hour of the meeting. Representatives from One Virginia 2021, VA Coalition for Open Government, VA Civic Engagement Table, and National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization attended to voice their support and suggestions.
Public comment drove home the point that citizens of Virginia value transparency and regular communication throughout the redistricting process, and the need to support and include minority communities in the process.