The U.S. Census Bureau released 2020 census data on Friday, but on Monday, the Virginia Redistricting Commission voted 14-1 with one abstention to consider August 26 the date of receipt of census bureau data. That’s due to Census Bureau delays that led to the data being released in an older format that will take vendors two weeks to process.

“This situation is very different from, I think, probably any other redistricting effort that has been done since long before World War II,” Senator George Barker (D-Fairfax) said, noting that law requires delivery of census data within a year of the census date.

“The start date for this round of redistricting was April 1, 2020, and therefore all the data should have been provided by April first of 2021,” he said. “However, largely because of the pandemic as well as other issues that came about in development and implementation of the census, it took a long time to get the census information forwarded, and we still have not received the final data and the final formatted assemblage that’s required here.”

The official start date launches a 45-day deadline to complete House of Delegates and Senate maps. It also launches a 60-day deadline to complete congressional district maps. Media including The Virginia Star reported August 12 as the start date. But the format of data released on August 12 is not the final format, which the Census Bureau says will be released by late September. Redistricting commission members debated whether to consider August 12, August 26, or September 30 the start date.

Legal counsel warned that there is a risk of the commission’s decision being legally challenged if the August 12 date is not used. Counsel argued that based on the two weeks needed to process the legacy format, there was a good case to be made in court in defense of the August 26 date, given the need for vendors to process the data into a usable format.

Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko said Monday’s meeting was meant as a time to debate several key decisions that the Commission will vote on Tuesday. Other issues considered were what map-drawing technicians would be hired, if the Commission would base new maps off old maps, and what the composition of subcommittees drawing the maps would be.

The Commission has previously decided to hire two legal teams to represent Republican perspectives and two teams to represent Democratic perspectives. On Monday, the teams from both sides largely agreed with each other, but were divided over whether to use map-drawing consultants from the University of Richmond (UR) recommended by the Democratic legal team.

Republican legal counsel warned about public perceptions of the UR team, which has worked redlining, and historic racial policy.

“One of the big parts of this process is having confidence from the public that this is a nonpartisan process,” Republican counsel Bryan Tyson said.

But a bigger concern was that the UR team hadn’t worked directly on redistricting map-drawing, and that while there’s a technical component, there’s an artistic element as well. Democratic counsel argued that the UR team’s work was nonpolitical and gave it the technical expertise needed to offer guidance to the commission. Additionally, both partisan legal teams have redistricting experience they can use to guide the commission.

On Tuesday, commissioners are expected to decide if they will hire just one group to provide technical map-drawing assistance, or if they will hire one to represent each political side. Democrats on the commission argued that hiring two teams would lead to a partisan split that would continue in votes on the final maps, undermining a public desire for a non-political final result.

“Citizens overwhelmingly gave us a vote of confidence to try something different because citizens across the board were not happy with the way redistricting had happened in the past, and so I would implore my fellow commissioners to take a leap of faith as we move forward with critical votes tomorrow to try something different, and not split the baby constantly along party lines to try to move forward,” Co-chair Greta Harris said.

Legal counsel for both sides said that good results could come from either changing existing maps or from starting from scratch, although they hinted at a slight preference for using existing maps. But several commissioners argued for starting with blank maps, based on a strong preference expressed by public commenters.

The commission again discussed how the two subcommittees, one focused on the House of Delegates, and one focused on the Senate. There seemed to be agreement that the subcommittees should each have a balance between legislators and citizen members as well as a balance between Republicans and Democrats. However, there was disagreement over a proposal that each subcommittee should have a balance of delegates and senators.

Delegate Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) said, “One of the themes that was common was, we wanted a citizen-led commission, and one of the fundamental principles is that voters ought to choose their legislators, and not the other way around,” he said. “To the extent that you now start saying, ‘Okay, we’ll have the senators work with some of their appointees on the Senate map, and we’ll have the House members work with some of their appointees on the House map, I think you get closer and closer, back to the same old way of doing things.”

Senator Stephen Newman (R-Bedford) said six out of eight of the citizen members have to endorse each map. “So there’s a very strong citizen component. But if you read the Constitution it separates out the House, the Senate, and Congress, and it says that within that six of eight citizen members, that three of four House members and three of four Senate members have got to support that plan.”

Newman said that because of that, it will be easier for House and Senate members to defend the maps to their General Assembly body if they worked on the plan themself, instead of working on the opposite chamber’s maps.

“I’m hopeful that we will put Senate members on the Senate map, House members on the House map”, Newman said.

The commission will resume its discussion at 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].