Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s advisory commission on redistricting paid a visit to Northern Virginia on Tuesday, eliciting a strikingly diverse range of suggestions from voters on how to redraw the state’s election districts this year.
Several speakers urged the panel to design fair, new electoral districts that were, among other things, geographically compact, that united young voters, that respected shared ethnic identities and that honored the longstanding boundaries of local Post Office delivery zones.
Some spoke out against the ugliness of gerrymandered districts that snake and twist across large geographic areas — but they also acknowledged the need for more than a cookie-cutter approach because of the importance of creating districts that reflected “communities of interest” or the voting power of minority groups. Another decried a report in Politico that Virginia’s delegation to the House of Representatives had already cut a deal that would protect Democratic and Republican incumbents. Above all, people wanted districts that would be fair and competitive, and not designed to protect incumbents.
The roadtrip by the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting, chaired by former Virginia Commonwealth University professor Bob Holsworth, drew a crowd of about 40 people to George Mason University on Tuesday night.
Many were outspoken: At least a third of the attendees addressed the commission. And their concerns were about as varied and diversive — and sometimes as mutually exclusive — as the considerations that go into drawing districts that fairly repepresent the divergent interests of the people inside them.
Katy Cannady, a retired civil servant from Alexandria, urged the commission to draft districts that would be competitive, saying one-party districts depress voter turnout and intensify voter apathy.
Baba Freeman of Reston urged the commission to respect Post Office boundaries, because people who live in the same ZIP code often share a sense of communal identity.
“I remember when Reson had a 22070 ZIP,” Freeman said afterwards. “That was Herndon — and all of us in Reston were umbraged. Then we got 22090, because Herndon’s a different place. The stereotype then is, Herndon was redneck, and we in Reston were international, educated, and la-de-da.”
Ben Tribbett, 31, who lives in the Rosslyn section of Arlington County and writes the liberal Not Larry Sabato blog, intrigued panelists with a suggestion to group young voters together, perhaps by selecting areas with high-density housing such as along some Metro routes. Lawmakers who live in the Metro corridors or even ride Metro, he argued, might be more sensitive to the community’s needs.
(Tribbett also elicited some quizzical looks from the panel when he digressed into a illustrative riff suggesting how some Metro stations smell like sewers because, he said, some Metro operators were unable to take breaks and relieved themselves on the train — a problem apparently ignored because not enough lawmakers ride the system.)
“Putting these districts in a way that allows for young voters to have more of a say, I think would be a great improvement, ” Tribbett told the panel. Tribbett, a former president of Fairfax County Young Democrats, said afterward that he is considering a possible run for the state Senate, depending on how the districts are drawn.
Del. Robert Brink (D-Arlington) urged the commission to give greater weight to political borders that define towns, cities, counties or other jurisdictions, even if it means easing the proportion by which a district could deviate from the target number of voters, which is about 80,000 voters per district.
Brink, who noted that Arlington County is now represented by four members of Virginia’s House of Delegates and two state senators, said the county might be better off with fewer represenatives even if it means that the size of its districts varied from the ideal.
Jaime Areizaga-Soto, vice president of the Democratic Latino Organization of Virginia, said the commission should work to draw lines that would empower the state’s growing Latino population.
Areizaga-Soto acknowledged that settlement patterns might compound the difficulty of building a district where Latinos represented a majority of the voters, but he suggested that acceptable alternatives might be to keep or create “coalition districts” such as the 49th House District. At the moment, the 49th is about 37 percent white, non Hispanic, 34 percent Latino, 14 percent black and 10 percent Asian, he told the panel. In 2003, the district put forward two Latino candidates. Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who is white, holds the House seat now.
“I hope it’s kept a coalition district,” he said. Areizaga-Soto also suggested that considerations of economic class should be factored in with considerations of lanaguage and shared ethnicity.
Holsworth, who also writes the Virginia Tomorrow blog, said the forum reinforced a common theme heard in its other public redistricting forums: People want to be in districts with people who share many of the same interests.
“That’s very important to people — who their identity is, and who they relate to,” he said.
The commission also reviewed district maps drawn by GMU students as part of a statewide competition with other universities and colleges. The panel plans to wrap up its work and report by April 1 to the Virginia General Assembly, which has the final say on mapping state districts.