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Chesterfield On Point

Posted on: November 22, 2021

Redistricting: Separating Fact from Fiction

Approved Redistricting Map

Approved Redistricting MapApproved County Redistricting Map

Over the past few weeks, some Chesterfield residents have expressed concerns about both the magisterial redistricting plan that was approved by the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 17 and the process by which the county developed it.

We’d like to address those issues, dispel any lingering concerns and promote a more thorough understanding of how and why redistricting happens on the local level.

What is redistricting and why does the county have to do it?

Because the populations in Chesterfield’s five magisterial districts (Bermuda, Clover Hill, Dale, Matoaca and Midlothian) do not change at the same rate, the county is required under state law to redraw the districts’ boundaries once every 10 years in conjunction with the release of updated U.S. Census data.

The purpose of this process is to ensure the districts have as close to the same number of residents as possible, given certain legal limitations we’ll get into later in this article.

Why didn’t Chesterfield hire an independent consultant or appoint a redistricting commission, as the General Assembly has done to redraw Virginia’s legislative districts?

The General Assembly has only created a redistricting commission process for state and congressional legislative redistricting, not for local redistricting. Under state law, the Board of Supervisors is required to redistrict the county. In undertaking this task, the board was assisted by county staff with guidance from the County Attorney’s office to ensure that the redistricting plans satisfied all legal requirements. The county had sufficient staff and software resources to assist the board in developing and analyzing the redistricting plans.

What about transparency and citizen input?

Because of delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the county did not receive official U.S. Census data – which it is required to use to redistrict – until mid-August, which is about 6 months later than anticipated.   However, under state law, the county is still required to complete the redistricting process by December 31.   

Despite the accelerated timetable for adopting a new magisterial district map, Chesterfield engaged residents in a robust public process for almost two full months following presentation of its initial redistricting proposal in September.

The county launched a dedicated census webpage in September, including charts and presentations that incorporated new census data, and provided an online portal for residents to submit comments about the proposed map.

Feedback also was collected during two Facebook Live community meetings, through Board of Supervisors’ meeting portals, at an in-person public hearing at the Board of Supervisors’ Oct. 27 meeting, as well as by phone, email and traditional mail. 

Chesterfield received more than 350 citizen comments, all of which were reviewed by the Board of Supervisors prior to its Nov. 17 vote.   Questions about the redistricting process and redistricting proposal were also answered live during the Facebook Live community meetings.

What are the legal requirements for the redistricting process?

Under Virginia law, magisterial districts must be contiguous, compact, have clearly observable boundaries (such as streets, rivers and other permanent features shown on maps) and have “equal” populations; maximum deviation between the number of residents in each district should be less than 5%.

Redrawing magisterial districts also cannot result in either racial vote packing (concentrating a voting bloc into one district to remove their ability to influence surrounding districts) or racial vote cracking (breaking a voting bloc into many districts to dilute its influence at the ballot box).

How did the county decide where to draw the boundary lines?

Census data indicates Chesterfield’s population grew by 15% between 2010 and 2020, from about 315,000 to more than 365,000. But as noted earlier, those new residents weren’t evenly distributed across the county. The Matoaca District saw by far the largest population increase, while Dale and Clover Hill had the least growth.

Dividing the total population of 365,306 by five districts, the county arrived at an ideal district size of 73,061 residents. That was the starting point from which it began shifting boundary lines: adding the necessary number of residents to Dale and Clover Hill and taking away residents from Matoaca, while complying with the law and trying to limit disruption to established communities.

Why did the county shift parts of the Midlothian and Clover Hill districts into Dale, rather than just expand Dale’s boundaries south into Matoaca? 

By moving a majority-white precinct (Manchester) from Clover Hill to Dale and a portion of a majority-Black precinct (Pocoshock) from Midlothian to Dale, the new map is more compact and has minimal effect on Dale’s, as well as Clover Hill’s and Midlothian’s, racial demographics. That’s critically important because of state law’s prohibition against racial vote packing and cracking.

One of the proposed maps submitted by a citizens group on Nov. 14 would have shifted an overwhelmingly white section of Matoaca into Dale, diluting the electoral power of Dale’s growing Black population and representing a legally problematic example of racial vote cracking. 

That same citizens’ proposed map would also have created a compactness problem by adding the West Beach precinct to Dale, which would have jutted out from the rest of the district. 

There is enough density in the portion of the Pocoshock precinct that was shifted and in the Manchester precinct to increase Dale’s population without violating the “equal population” requirement.

When it shifted most of Woodlake from the Matoaca District to Clover Hill, why couldn’t the county avoid splitting up the Foxcroft neighborhood?

By far, the majority of comments came from Woodlake residents. In response to feedback from those residents, who expressed concern about dividing their neighborhood between Matoaca and Clover Hill, the Board of Supervisors approved an alternate map that keeps Woodlake mostly intact and shifts it to Clover Hill.

That change increased Clover Hill’s population to within the 5% maximum deviation, but because there is no “clearly observable boundary” (as defined by state law) between Woodlake and the adjacent Foxcroft community, Chesterfield was forced to move part of Foxcroft into Clover Hill and keep the remainder in Matoaca.  

The boundaries the county is permitted to use to divide districts are limited by state law. The county intends to explore ways to have this law amended by the General Assembly to broaden the boundaries localities can utilize to redistrict.

Was the approved map gerrymandered with the intent of helping incumbent members of the Board of Supervisors win re-election?

No. At the local level, redistricting isn’t political – it’s fundamentally a math and geography exercise. While the Board of Supervisors has to approve the map before it is submitted to the attorney general, the county doesn’t consider the voting history of various precincts when drawing magisterial district boundaries. It also doesn’t know if the residents affected by redistricting changes even are registered voters. 

New voting laws passed by the General Assembly in 2020 significantly expanded opportunities for absentee voting. Virginians now can cast absentee ballots in-person or by mail beginning 45 days prior to an election; to accommodate such a change, Chesterfield repurposed five county libraries for use as early voting centers.

More than 145,000 Chesterfield residents voted absentee in the 2020 presidential election, or 71% of total turnout in the county. There were more than 69,000 absentee ballots cast in Chesterfield during the 2021 gubernatorial election, or 44% of total turnout.   

In Virginia, all mail and in-person absentee ballots are tallied as part of a central absentee precinct, not the voter’s assigned precinct. That means Chesterfield couldn’t know where many of its voters reside, even if it wanted to. Again, the only data used to redistrict was data from the 2020 census, which deals with population, not with voters or voting history.

What’s next?

Chesterfield will prepare its redistricting ordinance, maps and other information for submission to the attorney general in compliance with the Dec. 31 deadline. The ordinance will not go into effect until the county either receives certification, or 60 days pass after submission without any objection from the attorney general – whichever is sooner.

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