IW Supervisors briefed on redistricting

Published 5:00 pm Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Isle of Wight County will have a once-in-a-decade opportunity this fall to redraw its voting districts and potentially add seats to its currently five-member Board of Supervisors.

The U.S. Census Bureau has set a date of Aug. 16 for the release of the 2020 census data in a non-tabulated legacy format, and plans to release a more user-friendly tabulated version by Sept. 30.

The Bureau had originally planned to deliver the data by March 31, but cites the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for the months-long delay. Ordinarily, localities would be expected to have the redistricting process complete in time for any November elections, but, “We’re not under the gun,” County Attorney Bobby Jones said. “In fact, I doubt anybody who has elections in November is going to be able to do it.”

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State law actually prohibits any change being made to a voting district within 60 days of a general election.

“My understanding is that November elections will proceed on current maps,” said Rebecca Green, a law professor at the College of William and Mary with expertise in election law.

But should the contested School Board races set for this November go forward under the current maps, and the winners then see substantial changes to the makeup of their districts, Green couldn’t say what would happen.

“That is a good question,” she said. “I’m not sure how localities will map their own path through these uncertainties.”

According to Jones, the county is operating under the assumption that, election or no, the process still must be complete “in a year that ends in 1,” giving Isle of Wight just three to four months to meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

But according to Green, the statutory deadline no longer applies. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision that struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act known as preclearance, which required certain states, Virginia among them, to secure federal approval for any redistricting plans before those maps could take effect.

Now that “neither the state legislature nor counties are required to submit plans to the federal government,” the former Dec. 31 deadline is effectively moot, Green said.

But the 2013 preclearance decision isn’t the only change in laws that’s occurred since Isle of Wight’s voting districts were last redrawn in 2011. Earlier this year, Virginia’s General Assembly passed its own voting rights law, House Bill 1890, which mandates a minimum 30-day public comment period on new district boundaries drawn following a decennial census — followed by a 30-day waiting period where any person affected by the change can challenge the practice as having the purpose or effect of discriminating against a racial, ethnic or language minority group.

In lieu of going through the minimum 60-day process, localities are allowed under the new law to instead seek a “certification of no objection” from the state Office of the Attorney General.

Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors directed Jones by consensus July 15 to seek out the availability of Chris Nolen, the attorney who served as an outside consultant to the county during the 2011 redistricting process.

In addition to retaining Nolen, the 2011 Board had also tasked a 13-member redistricting committee with providing options for five or more districts based on the 2010 census data that would meet the federal requirement that they be near equal in population.

“From the smallest district to the largest district, the measure can’t be more than 5% variance,” Jones said. “It really needs to be less than that so it’s not subject to challenge.”

Per the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, there must also be at least one district where a minority candidate has a chance of being elected, as demonstrated by the ratio of white residents to people of color.

Districts must also be contiguous and as compact as possible.

“That is the one where there is some wiggle room,” Jones said. “If you’re accomplishing a minority-majority district and the districts get less than compact, as long as they’re contiguous, that is a factor … It may be that we’re not able to get a minority-majority district, and then in that case, the law is going to require we do the best we can to make sure that there is as much representation or as much ability for the minority group to have an active voice.”

According to Green, the Voting Rights Act’s minority-majority requirement is based on three factors: whether a minority community is sufficiently large and compact, whether it is politically cohesive and whether majority voters consistently vote to defeat the minority candidates of choice.

“It’s a very complex set of factors,” not simply a requirement that at least one district be minority-majority, Green said.

In 2011, according to The Smithfield Times archives, the Board ultimately rejected the five- and seven-district maps the committee had recommended, instead favoring a third option that increased the concentration of Black voters in the county’s Hardy District from the proposed 52% majority to 54% by moving one side of Grace Street in downtown Smithfield out of the Smithfield District and into Hardy.

The resulting map, which remains in effect to this day, extended Isle of Wight’s Carrsville District more than 30 miles from the county’s border with the city of Franklin all the way to its border with Surry County, and moved some Smithfield and Carrollton residents into the county’s Windsor District.

“Rudy walks one side of the street, I walk the other,” said Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice, referring to the Grace Street boundary between his and Hardy District Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson’s districts.

But going from five to seven districts won’t necessarily alleviate the frustration some downtown Smithfield voters felt when the 2011 redistricting shifted them from voting at the nearby Smithfield Center polling place to First Gravel Hill Baptist Church in Rushmere seven miles away.

“Whether you have seven districts or 10 districts, there’s going to be a boundary line,” Jones said.

He’s also not convinced adding more districts will make it any more likely a minority candidate will be elected. In fact, it could have the opposite effect.

“I mean, to maintain the same ratio of minority representation, you’d have to find two [minority-majority] districts if you go to seven,” Jones said, “because if you don’t, you’re actually diluting the minority vote.”

From 2000 to 2010, Isle of Wight grew in population by 18% from 29,728 residents to 35,270, but during those 10 years its percentage of Black residents dropped from 27% in 2000 to 24% as of 2010. According to Census Bureau estimates from 2019, Isle of Wight now has just over 37,000 residents and is 72.7% white and 23.2% Black.