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City Council approves redistricting criteria, hints at possible changes after process begins
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Richmond

City Council approves redistricting criteria, hints at possible changes after process begins

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The Richmond City Council has approved its redistricting criteria, setting the stage for the decennial map-drawing process over the next few months.

The council approved the guidelines Tuesday after a brief delay this month triggered by public cries for a more transparent process. Two organizations raised concerns about how it could shape the result of mayoral, council and School Board elections over the next decade.

“The reason that I believe this [ordinance] should be adopted at this time is that it will put us in the best and strongest legal position as we go through the process of redistricting,” said Gerry Hebert, a lawyer the city attorney’s office hired to assist with the project.

State law requires localities to update their voter districts every 10 years following the latest U.S. census. The purpose is to ensure that voter districts are similarly sized so that their respective populations are nearly equal and that each vote carries similar weight.

The deadline for localities to draw new political districts is Dec. 31, but some Virginia cities and counties are planning to adopt it later because the national head count and subsequent data dump was delayed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city’s population over the last decade increased by 11%, from 204,000 to 226,600, according to last year’s census data.

Each district needs about 25,000 residents to make them equal. The city’s 2nd and 6th districts are over that number by more than 5%. The 3rd District falls short by 12%, meaning that all three need to be adjusted to fall within an acceptable deviation from the ideal head count.

The Richmond City Council had planned to expedite approval of redistricting guidelines earlier this month, with the goal of drafting and adopting new maps by Feb. 28. The Richmond City Democratic Committee and Richmond Crusade for Voters, however, asked the council to slow down for the sake of transparency and public engagement.

The criteria adopted Tuesday is identical to what was originally introduced earlier this month and maintains the late February deadline. It does not include new language requiring that draft maps be drawn publicly or that each district be compact and contiguous, as requested by the Democratic committee.

However, City Council President Cynthia Newbille said the process and criteria are still subject to change. “I would imagine that there will be opportunity for further modifications ... when we decide what additional terms we’d like to add or amend,” she said.

“This [ordinance] would not preclude that,” Hebert said. “In fact, I envision that happening after the first of the year, when you meet again.”

The legislation adopted Tuesday features five guiding principles:

  • complying with all relevant federal and state laws with regard to the protection of voting rights;
  • to the extent feasible, avoiding splits of voting precincts between council, School Board, state legislative and congressional election districts;
  • to the extent feasible, maximizing voter convenience and the effective administration of elections;
  • wherever possible, preserving “communities of interest” as defined by state law; and
  • if possible, consolidating smaller voting precincts so that the number of registered voters in each precinct is at least the statewide average.

No members of the public spoke at Tuesday’s special meeting. The ordinance passed on along a 5-0 vote, as four council members were absent.

Jamie Nolan, the chair of the city’s Democratic committee, said in an interview later Tuesday that her organization remains interested in seeing more transparency and public access to the redistricting process.

“We ... reiterate to council the importance of being inclusive and transparent in this process, and to establish community meetings and increase public feedback to the extent possible during this timeline,” Nolan said.

While the redistricting process is supposed to be managed by the council and its own support staff, rather than Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration, several council members publicly asked for support from the administration last week to improve public engagement.

City and council officials since then have updated a redistricting webpage to share more information about the process, maps of the existing voter districts and census data.

Still, several council members said they are eager to get the project started and form a public engagement strategy so that the public doesn’t feel left in the dark.

“I think there’s some concern around having a last-minute like map proposal come in the 11th hour and change everything,” said 1st District Councilman Andreas Addison.

“Folks are seeing headlines from the counties around us are making last minute changes with minimal input,” he said. “From what I’m hearing from everyone else, that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

More information about the redistricting process and public engagement can be found online at rva.gov/richmond-city-council/redistricting or by emailing redistricting@rva.gov.

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