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Richmond to miss redistricting deadline with adoption of new local voting maps slated for next year
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Richmond to miss redistricting deadline with adoption of new local voting maps slated for next year

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Keith Balmer

Deidra Roberts and Keith Cornell (above and below), both of Richmond, cast and then submitted their ballots into voting machines at the city voter registration office on Thursday. Early voting at registrars’ offices began last month and ends Oct. 30. The deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 2 election is Tuesday.

The city of Richmond will miss a legally mandated deadline at the end of this month to draw new local voter districts following the 2020 U.S. census.

Several Virginia localities have already adopted or plan to approve new boundaries for their voting districts ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline.

Richmond officials, however, have yet to formally introduce a plan for the approval of new district boundaries for the nine districts represented on the City Council and School Board. The boundaries are also important to the city’s at-large mayoral elections, as a candidate must win in at least five of the districts to get elected.

While city officials were planning to begin the process on Monday — with the expedited adoption of redistricting criteria and a timeline that sets up a final council vote on Feb. 28 — the Richmond Democratic Committee and the Richmond Crusade for Voters, a voting rights advocacy group, have requested a delay and more transparency.

Voting rights activists say it is especially important as the national head count found the city’s Black population fell under 50% in the last decade, meaning that representation of the community could be marginalized depending on how the maps are drawn.

The city’s current system of representative government was largely shaped in the 1970s after a federal lawsuit alleged that the city leaders at that time had annexed part of Chesterfield County to dilute the Black population’s influence on electoral politics.

“We want to make sure the public has an understanding of what’s taking place and can provide input,” said Crusade President Jonathan Davis.

In a news release Friday, the City Council said it is committed to a transparent process and that it will not expedite approval of the redistricting criteria as originally planned. The statement says the resolution will instead go through the council’s normal vetting process to allow for subcommittee review and public hearings on the proposed redistricting criteria.

“Richmond City Council is committed to ensuring the criteria and process is clearly defined, transparent, inclusive, equitable, and driven by and responsive to resident input, discussion, and feedback,” the statement reads.

The draft legislation includes 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.
  • If possible, consolidating smaller voting precincts so that the number of registered voters in each precinct is at least the statewide average.

Gerry Hebert, a redistricting consultant and lawyer, said at least three of the city’s nine council districts will need to be amended after new census estimates found that the city population increased by 11%, from 204,000 to 226,600, in the last decade.

Ideally, each district will have about 25,000 residents to make each equal. The 2nd and 6th districts are above that number by more than 5%, while the 3rd District falls short by 12%, meaning that all three would need to be adjusted to fall within a reasonable deviation from the ideal head count, Hebert said.

It’s unclear why the process is just beginning, as the city had retained Hebert’s counsel in June, according to a retainer agreement acquired by the Richmond Times-Dispatch through an open records request. The city redacted a section of the contract describing the scope of work to be performed by Hebert, citing attorney-client privilege.

Marty Jewell, a former City Council member and 2nd vice president of the Crusade for Voters, said he understands that there’s a constitutionally mandated deadline, but said he worries that rushing the process could result in unintended consequences with regard to the representation of the Black community, given the recent demographic trends reported in the census.

“We need to see those numbers how they break down before we give away any more political power by rushing this process,” he said in an interview. “We shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of this because someone in City Hall dropped the ball.”

Interim City Attorney Haskell Brown did not respond to an email with questions about the process and work performed since the release of preliminary census data in August. City Council President Cynthia Newbille did not respond to a voicemail message requesting an interview.

In a presentation to the council on Monday, Hebert said the process is starting later than usual because the census was published about six months later than usual, due to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If the census had come out when it should have come out in March or April, we would have had this done by now,” Hebert said. “And as you probably know ... the congressional and state legislative districts have not yet been drawn after the Virginia Redistricting Commission deadlocked. That matter is now before the Virginia Supreme Court.”

“That impacts our process a little bit,” he added, explaining that election law requires local voting districts to align with state and federal district maps so that residents don’t need to visit more than one precinct to vote for their representatives.

Still, the Richmond City Democratic Committee in a letter to the City Council on Friday said it is concerned that a redistricting process was not established sooner, and recommended several adjustments to improve transparency.

“In the past, redistricting has been a murky process with little public input. It is the duty of the City Council to govern better,” the letter says. “As it stands now, it seems that members of Council will be able to draw lines behind closed doors. This is unacceptable.”

Aside from asking the council to not immediately adopt the criteria and the proposed timeline on Monday, the local Democratic committee requested that the council include requirements to make each district compact, contiguous and easily understandable. The committee also asked that the council establish an ad hoc committee that includes the council and city officials to draft the new maps live in public meetings.

Richmond is not alone in planning to adopt new district maps after Dec. 31.

While Fairfax and Chesterfield counties have already adopted new voter maps, Albemarle County officials have proposed a redistricting timeline with an adoption vote slated for May.

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