Question of seven-member Board returns

Published 11:16 pm Tuesday, November 5, 2019

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

The idea that the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors should be expanded from five to seven members is not new. 

It came up 10 years ago after the last U.S. Census and the final consensus by the Board was no, despite strong public support for seven districts.  

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It is also how Isle of Wight ended up with the Carrsville District that runs nearly the length of the western edge of the county and how residents of Grace Street are in different voting districts, depending on what side they live on. 

The upcoming 2020 U.S. Census will give the next Board an opportunity to revisit the idea, if it chooses to do so. 

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice brought up the issue as part of his recent campaign. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Grice said that just three people should not have the power to move policies and other actions forward, referring to the majority needed for passage. 

That is, expanding to seven districts would dilute the power held by any one Board member. 

During a recent forum, Newport District Supervisor William McCarty said he would rather the residents decide if they want five or seven, while his opponent in Tuesday’s election, Rick Gillerlain, was concerned that seven districts would concentrate power in the more populated northern end of the county. 

Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree asked at the October Board meeting if the issue could be put on the agenda for an upcoming worksession. 

Key to the discussion 10 years ago was the need to establish a majority-minority district as required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices used in many southern states after the Civil War. 

At the time, it was argued that Isle of Wight simply could not establish two minority-majority districts, as would have been required by law if the Board added two members.  

Minority-majority districts were devised to allow minorities in a jurisdiction the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. Often, the ability to do that rests on the proportion of minorities in a given district.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, made a change to the law in 2013 that loosened requirements for southern states that fell under what was called the “pre-clearance” rule, and which included Virginia. 

The 2013 ruling made unconstitutional the portion of the Act that dealt with a formula for coverage and used for pre-clearance. 

The Court ruled that the formula was based on 40-year old data and no longer fit the current needs of states and localities. The formula was used to discourage racial discrimination and referred to the proportion of black to white voters in a given district. 

Without the need to use the formula, localities are no longer subject to the pre-clearance requirement. 

Pre-clearance referred to the requirement that designated states, including Virginia, must obtain federal approval before making any changes to their voting laws or practices. 

In 2010, the Board, as well as the county attorney, argued that Isle of Wight would not meet the pre-clearance standard if it tried to adopt seven voting districts. 

Today, the Hardy District is considered Isle of Wight County’s only minority-majority district. 

To address redistricting after the 2010 census, the Board of Supervisors appointed a committee to recommend new voting district lines based on the new data.  

The process devolved into controversy and accusations of corruption when the Board at the time voted 3-2 to keep five districts, while the committee itself had voted 12-1 for seven — along with strong public support for the latter. 

Maintaining a strong minority-majority ratio was the reason given for keeping five districts. In the end, the new five-district plan had a ratio of 53.2 percent minority residents, while the seven-district plan had a ratio of 55 percent.  {/mprestriction}