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Isle of Wight forms redistricting task force

A seven-member task force will provide Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors with options for redrawing the county’s voting districts based on the recently released 2020 Census data.

The Board voted to form the task force Aug. 19 and plans to appoint its members Sept. 2. The task force will include one individual from each of the current five voting districts, plus two at-large members.

Advising the body will be Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson and the county’s geographic information systems manager, Herb Finch.

Per state law, localities have until Dec. 31 in a year ending in 1 to redraw their voting districts. The date also formerly served as the deadline by which Virginia localities and its state government needed to secure federal approval for any voting district map changes, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that particular provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013.

The U.S. Census Bureau had planned to deliver the 2020 data by March 31 but delayed the release to Aug. 12, citing the coronavirus pandemic as its reason.

“We still don’t have the General Assembly-approved figures for you to use,” said Andrew McRoberts, who will be serving as the county’s outside legal counsel for the redistricting process. “The state does have figures, but they’re not final. … One of the adjustments that has changed this year from past census redistricting is where the prisoners get counted.”

In 2011 and prior, anyone incarcerated was counted as a resident of the locality in which the jail or prison was located. Starting this year, inmates are now counted as residents of the locality in which they resided before they were sent to prison. The adjusted data isn’t expected to be available to localities until mid September at the earliest.

Per state law, no redistricting maps may be adopted between Sept. 3 and Nov. 2, since those dates fall within 60 days of a general election. As such, Isle of Wight’s task force and Board of Supervisors will have just under two months to complete the process — between Nov. 2 and Dec. 31.

“That’s your window; it’s not a very long window,” McRoberts said.

Per federal and state constitutional requirements, redrawn districts must be more or less equal in population, be contiguous and compact, and not discriminate based on race. Deviations in population should be less than 5% if possible, but deviations of up to 10% may be permitted.

“There have been cases where under 10% have been struck down; there have been cases where it’s 17% and it’s been upheld,” McRoberts said. “My message to you is try to get less than 5% if you can.”

According to the figures the Census Bureau released Aug. 12, Isle of Wight County has grown by roughly 9.5% since 2010 and now has a total population of 38,606. Were the county to retain its current five districts rather than going to a six- or seven-member Board of Supervisors and School Board, that breaks down to an ideal 7,721 people per district.

According to unofficial population estimates by county staff, which may change once Isle of Wight receives the state-adjusted data, the county’s Newport District has become its most populous, with just over 9,900 residents. Its least populous district, Hardy, has just over 6,300, which amounts to 57% less.

“So basically it means you’ve got to move people out of Newport and Smithfield into Hardy,” County Administrator Randy Keaton said.

But depending how that’s done, Hardy could potentially cease to be a minority-majority district. Per a provision of the Voting Rights Act, there must be at least one district in each locality where a minority candidate has a chance of being elected, based on the ratio of white residents to people of color and whether majority voters consistently vote to defeat minority candidates.

During the 2011 redistricting process, Isle of Wight moved one side of Grace Street in downtown Smithfield out of the Smithfield District and into Hardy for the stated purpose of increasing Hardy’s concentration of Black voters from the then-proposed 52% majority to 54%. Based on the Aug. 12 census data, Isle of Wight’s Black population decreased 2% from 2010 to 2020.

“If you have a majority-minority district today, I’d recommend that you try to keep it,” McRoberts said.

In fact, Virginia’s 2021 Rights of Voters Act allows anyone affected by the redrawing of voting districts to challenge a locality’s redistricting map as having the purpose or effect of discriminating against a racial, ethnic or language minority group. Per the Act, there must be a minimum 30-day public comment period on new district boundaries — followed by a 30-day waiting period after they’re adopted, during which time the map can be challenged in court as discriminatory. In lieu of going through this minimum 60-day process, the law allows localities to instead seek a “certification of no objection” from the state’s Office of the Attorney General.

The county plans to instruct the task force to focus on redrawing the existing five districts rather than debating whether or not to increase the number of supervisors or school board members.

“I’m afraid that if we do anything else based on some of the things we’ve heard that we may get ourselves in trouble,” said Newport District Supervisor William McCarty.

Individuals interested in serving on the redistricting task force can fill out the committee application on the county’s website at https://www.co.isle-of-wight.va.us/departments/planning_and_zoning/boards_and_commissions/committee_application.php or by calling 757-365-6204.