Throwing the redistricting commission a line: this is how you can serve Virginians

By Erin Corbett

During a pandemic where everyone is glued to their mobile phones and devices, you’d think Virginia’s redistricting commission would advertise on all social platforms, newspaper ads, listservs, and any forum possible to get the word out about their upcoming March 30 meeting. The commission itself was created to invite Virginians into the redistricting process to avoid the shadiness and racism that’s plagued our map-drawing process in years past.

But since the commission doesn’t represent the rich diversity of our state, it’s even more important that they compensate for the lack of representation with radical transparency and accountability.

But here we are, less than 24 hours until the meeting, without a tweet, post or notice. The commission is all crickets.

They created a Twitter account to advertise meetings and connect with constituents, but haven’t posted since January 28. In fact, if it weren’t for community leaders invested in the commission’s meetings and movements on behalf of Virginians, nobody would have known there was a meeting scheduled. The commission’s idea of advertising is inconspicuously updating the “Meetings and Hearings’’ tab on its website — effectively invisible to anyone disconnected from civil rights groups and progressive organizations.

This is not what Virginians voted for.

While we are in solidarity with the citizen commissioners, who are likely as confused as we are as we are also navigating the uncertainty of delayed census data delivery, Virginia’s Division of Legislative Services, and the legislator commissioners, know better and must do better.

It’s not too late to change. We recommend several measures for the commission to foster an environment where all Virginians are encouraged to participate, ask questions and be represented in the redistricting process:

  • Create and maintain a website available in languages representative of the Commonwealth

The commission’s website should be easily accessible in the many languages spoken across Virginia. The commission’s website is currently translated in English only.

We encourage the commision to use the best practice of using translation by a professional or human review of a machine translated product. The website and/or key aspects of the website should be translated by a professional translator. We do not endorse the use of Google translation or any machine translation alone to translate websites as the translation is not context-sensitive and may not fully convert text into its intended meaning.

  • Schedule meetings and hearings during times in which Virginians can reasonably be expected to attend

Scheduling meetings after traditional workday hours or on weekends better ensures participation. By limiting the hearings to work hours, the commission is making participation more exclusive. The March 30th hearing is scheduled for 10:00 am, making it difficult or impossible for many Virginians to access.

  • Ensure that public comment is accessible and encouraged

The commission must make public comment available before, during and after hearings so that every Virginian’s voice can be heard. To ensure the meeting is accessible to all Virginians, we encourage the commission to also have interpreters available at commission meetings when they know that non-English community members have signed up to testify.

During a previous commission meeting, a commissioner suggested disabling the chat feature in Zooms, making public comments less accessible and more exclusive.

  • Advertise every meeting and hearing

The commission must advertise its hearings to ensure equitable participation. Neglecting this crucial component is negligent to the communities across Virginia. It is detrimental to the needed civic engagement of Virginians and destructive to the trust in which we instill the commission.The commission must be utilizing its social media as well as media outlets to communicate the timing of these hearings.

Virginians want answers but are getting silence in return. Just because HB2082 and HB1111, which aimed to bring some transparency and accountability to the redistricting commission, died in the state Senate — doesn’t mean that the commission is exempt from its responsibility to constituents.

After attending their previous meetings, it’s apparent that citizen commissioners are under-equipped to take on redistricting, putting the responsibility on legislator commissioners and the DLS to provide information and fill in any knowledge gaps. Virginans deserve to feel confident in this group since the districts drawn will dictate how their communities can build autonomy and political power, impacting the lives of millions living in the Commonwealth. Greater engagement with the community, and organizations with an expertise and stake in the outcome, can help ensure this process is done correctly.

On March 30, we’ll be joined by several members of the Virginia Counts Coalition to watch the meeting and provide space for the public to dialogue with community leaders and legal experts about next steps in the redistricting process. It’s important we do this because so far, the commission has not supported Virginians adequately.

While we watch the meeting with our constituents, eyes will be on the commission demanding accountability, transparency and clear communication. We hope that the commission will rise to the occasion.

~Erin Corbett is the Redistricting Coordinator with the Virginia Civic Engagement Table. In this role, she facilitates the work of the Virginia Counts Coalition, which ensures the Redistricting Commission creates and manages a process that is transparent, equitable, and representative of the Commonwealth

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