RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia’s new redistricting commission, established by a constitutional referendum last November, met Monday in Richmond to begin work on redrawing Virginia’s state and federal legislative districts.

Although the legislators and citizens of the commission were enthusiastic to begin their work, they were missing one important piece: the comprehensive census data that will inform every decision they make.

The 2020 census process was plagued by delays last year as the COVID-19 pandemic drove much of the country into lockdown. Normally, states expect to receive complete census data in the spring, but Virginia didn’t receive its data until Aug. 12 this year.

And, as the commission discovered, it came in an outdated format that was incompatible with the advanced mapping tools they intended to use. The data, the census bureau said, will not be released in a usable format until Sept. 30.

Starting that late would render it nearly impossible for the commission to complete their maps before the November election – forcing a “lame duck” General Assembly to give their approval and, the commissioners feared, bringing the maps’ legitimacy into question.

Instead, the commission has chosen to ask a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) firm to process the data themselves and turn it into usable material. That will be completed by Aug. 26 – but comments from the commission made it clear that even when the data is in hand there will be enduring issues.

Communities of Interest

One point of contention was the preservation of what the commission’s proposed guidelines call “communities of interest.” The guidelines state, “The integrity and priority of existing political subdivisions should be preserved to the extent possible.”

That means making sure district boundaries don’t divide cities and counties unnecessarily – as happened to the cities of Lynchburg and Fredericksburg in the last round of redistricting.

“[Lynchburg] has two state Senators and two House of Delegate Representatives. Every four years the registrar has to print four ballots. This is expensive and confusing especially to new voters,” said Lynchburg resident Martha Hicks, in an email, submitted to the commission.

But Virginia Senator George Barker (D-Alexandria), said while they would work to follow that guidance, they might be forced to prioritize concerns like equality of population between districts, which is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Drawing New Districts from the Old

Another point of contention was the question of whether the commission should start their maps from scratch or instead seek to make modifications to existing maps.

Legal counsel retained by the Republican members of the commission recommended working from the old maps, saying it would accelerate the process and help commission members get started. But a number of Virginia citizens wrote into the commission opposing this idea.

“I beg you to create new legislative district boundaries by starting from the ground up,” wrote Mark Heinicke. “To use existing boundaries as the basis for drawing new ones is a bit like using Rube Goldberg contraptions as a basis for designing a new car.”

Some also tied their response to the issue of “communities of interest.”

“Please do not start [from] current Virginia districts which are atrocious,” said Daniel Grogan. “Rather start [with] a clean slate to keep communities of interest paramount.”

The committee will meet again on Aug. 17 to make their decision on how those guidelines should be interpreted, and public comment will be accepted online in writing or in person. The meeting will be held at 8 a.m. in the Pocahontas Building, Senate Room A, in Richmond.