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lynchburg | redistricting

Lynchburg City Council heads back to the drawing board on redistricting, precincts

After taking a look at potential changes to voting precincts, Lynchburg City Council is taking a step back to look at more redistricting options, even as the Aug. 10 deadline for the maps to be submitted approaches.

Council made the decision to go back and look at some of their other map options after seeing the effect their preferred proposed map would have on precinct changes for future elections.

"I really think it's important that we don't set this up so that we make future wards become non-competitive, and also so we don't disenfranchise voters in different wards," Mayor MaryJane Dolan said during council's work session this week. "I think it does require us to look at the distribution very carefully."

Redistricting is the process of reshaping the ward boundaries in the city, happening every 10 years after census data is released.

Each of the four wards must remain within a 5% plus or minus standard deviation of each other to ensure there isn't crowding in one district. The city must also maintain a majority-minority ward throughout the process — currently, that's Ward II, which is the ward that needs the most adjustment due to population fluctuation during the past decade.

The distribution the mayor is pushing council to look at? Ensuring that, under the new proposed redistricting maps, each precinct is over a minimum of 500 voters and below a maximum of 5,000 voters, while still ensuring as little disruption as possible to voters across the city.

According to City Planner Tom Martin, there would be several changes to polling places if the proposed scenario by council was approved.

Notably, Liberty University, which has more than 5,000 voters, would need to add a precinct. There also will need to be necessary precinct shuffling in Wards II and III due to the boundary lines shifting.

Several councilors expressed their desire to keep polling places as unchanged as possible, while still recognizing the need to make at least a few changes.

The main scenario considered by council initially was labeled scenario D and was one of four on the table. It places the city in something similar to four quadrants, according to Martin, and makes all the necessary changes to account for population movement during the past decade.

Notably, the map also was the overwhelming favorite of a public survey filled out by roughly 150 people, receiving 41% of votes as the first selection and 25% of votes as the second selection vote on redistricting.

At-large Councilwoman Treney Tweedy doesn't believe the survey should be the final answer when looking at the maps.

"I'd rather take a pause ... I'd rather staff bring back the 'A' and 'B' scenarios so that we have a greater understanding and knowledge of how many will actually be affected now that we're looking deeper into the data, as opposed to just looking at a surface-level survey and saying, 'Let's make it based on 150 people,'" Tweedy said. "Their opinion and votes matter, but when we're talking about a shift of thousands of people, then it becomes a different conversation."

Tweedy later said she hopes by keeping the precinct disruptions to a minimum, it will allow for less voter confusion on Election Day.

That's where scenarios A and B come back onto the table, both of which provide as little disruption as possible to the current ward boundaries of the city. 

Martin told The News & Advance in March that scenario A provides "minimalistic" changes, while scenario B "makes better sense with geographical boundaries" in the city. 

Map A, according to Martin, takes the northernmost part of Ward III, along with a small part of the east side of Ward IV, and gives those parts to Ward II to bring them to the standard deviation.

Map B makes similar changes to Ward III as A does, but in Ward IV, the entire area north of Ivy Creek that currently is in Ward IV would move into Ward I.

Ward IV Councilman Chris Faraldi, who is an advocate for scenario D, claimed options A and B are examples of a "clear gerrymander."

"These districts are compact and continuous," Faraldi said of scenario D. "The others are not."

"I hope," Faraldi later said, "that as we move forward, we adopt districts that reflect natural, transparent geographical lines that pass the smell test. Options A and B are status quo and they do not."

At-large Councilman Randy Nelson, who is in favor of scenario D, agreed with Faraldi the status quo of the boundaries needs to change now, not down the road.

"My understanding is that [scenario D] is disruptive to the citizens' past practices that we want to keep the voters voting in the same precincts," Nelson said, "... and it was actually suggested that in some way it disenfranchises some of the voters.

"I don't dispute that it does change the status quo in some areas of the city. However, that is and has been the fundamental premise and principle advocating against gerrymandered districts."

Nelson later said scenario D is "the perfect example of compact and contiguous districts" that the city set out to define in the beginning of the redistricting process.

He said while he recognizes it is a change to the status quo for a group of citizens who may have to change polling places, he said he "trusts the intelligence of our voters ... to learn where they will cast their vote."

Nelson also noted if they don't make the change now, when council needs to readjust the ward boundaries again in 10 years, there will be "the same sort of traumatic, drastic education and realignment that we are trying to undertake now."

Ward III Councilman Jeff Helgeson said he wants to take more time to make sure scenario D would "pass the smell test" of the attorney general when the maps are to be submitted.

"It's got to pass the test of did we disenfranchise or not. And with that, I want us to kind of walk a little bit further to the side to make sure there's not a problem with that," he said.

As council moves forward, several made the fact known they are not throwing out scenario D but that they would just like more time to look into it.

On June 28, council will hold a work session at 4 p.m. where they will look at the precinct options for each of the three scenarios — options A, B and D — and reopen the public hearing during the regular meeting later that night at 7:30 p.m. to garner feedback from citizens on the respective maps.

It's possible councilors then could move after the public hearing to approve one of the maps to be sent off to Richmond.

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