Hearing could determine future of Richmond City Council elections

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Richmond public hearing could determine future of City Council elections
Photo by Kathy Chouteau

The future of how Richmond residents will vote in City Council elections over the next 10 years will be the subject of a public hearing on Tuesday.

The council will consider whether to adopt one among a number of proposed maps that will determine the boundaries of voting districts within the city. The process has brought unity to the city in that a coalition of over a dozen neighborhood councils came together to create a district map. Neighborhood leaders say the map they’ve proposed would keep communities of interest intact while best exemplifying the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, in that their proposal would create two majority-minority districts. 

But supporters of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), whose members currently hold a majority on council, are opposing the map by neighborhood council leaders and have instead proposed an alternative map that is similar to the existing district map. Their proposed map has one majority-minority district and is more favorable to RPA incumbents on the council. 

First, a brief summary on why a new map is needed in the first place: Prior to the 2020 election, the City Council voted to transition from a system of at-large City Council elections, where voters elect all City Council members, to a system of district elections, where voters elect only the councilmember who represents the district in which they reside. The transition was compelled under threat of legal action, with an attorney charging that at large elections violate the Voting Rights Act by diluting representation of majority-minority neighborhoods.

In January 2020, the Richmond council adopted a map with six council districts. Three of the districts held elections in November 2020, with the other three set to follow in the November 2022 elections. But with new data from the 2020 Census now available, the city is required to redraw the district map to reflect how populations have changed since the last Census tally in 2010, in order to ensure fair and equitable elections for the next 10 years.

Following months of workshops and public hearings guided by the National Demographics Corporation, a number of revised maps have been proposed. Among them is a variation of a map proposed by a coalition of more than a dozen neighborhood councils, called Map 102(c).

According to neighborhood council leaders, Map 102(c) is the most legally defensible map in that it is constructed in the spirit of the Voting Rights Act to ensure adequate representation for majority-minority communities. In terms of the total citizen voting age population, Map 102(c) creates one district in which the Latino population has the majority, and one district in which the Black population has a majority.

Map 102 provides “equitable representation of people in Richmond,” and “not just a select group,” Madelyn Law, a 43-year resident who is president of the Park Plaza Neighborhood Council, said at a redistricting hearing last month. Law added that Map 102 keeps the underserved southside of Richmond united, “giving us an opportunity to investigate the probability of creating a Cutting Boulevard business corridor.”

Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council President Oscar Garcia lauded Map 102 for “joining neighborhoods that have similar interests” and for creating two majority-minority districts for communities of color that have been historically disenfranchised by redlining and gerrymandering.

Naomi Williams, president of the Pullman Point Neighborhood Council, said Map 102(c) “united our neighborhood councils,” adding it was created “for the people, by the people.”

Despite such sentiments by neighborhood leaders, Map 102(c) faces what appears to be a formidable challenge from the RPA, a political association whose supporters have proposed a separate map, called Map 201, that is very similar to the current map linked to 2010 Census data. In terms of citizen voting age population, Map 201 only has one district that is a majority Latino and none that are a majority Black.  

Supporters of Map 201 say it is superior to the map proposed by the neighborhood councils because it doesn’t prevent about 6,000 voters from participating in the 2022 council election, which can be a drawback of redistricting to ensure equitable representation. 

An RPA-supported group called Reimagine Richmond said Map 102 “would disenfranchise some Black and Brown voters in the Iron Triangle, it would give Richmond Height’s predominantly White voters the chance to vote in two consecutive district elections, and it doesn’t follow the guiding principles of Redistricting.”

In the public hearing last month, Yenny Garcia of the Latina Center called the deferral of voters unfair.

“I think the thing that concerns me is that thousands of voters that weren’t able to vote in 2020 won’t be able to vote in 2022,” said David Sharples of the progressive group ACCE Institute. “And for that reason I support Map 201.

Neighborhood council leaders counter that the deferment of a small population of voters is necessary in order to make district voting maps more equitable in the longterm. Map 102(c) was created in the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, which requires use of the latest Census data to ensure districts are redrawn to promote fair representation, supporters say. Keeping the status quo isn’t the goal of the Voting Rights Act and is a form of modern-day gerrymandering, they add.

Garcia, president of the Iron Triangle neighborhood, said the notion of deferred voting was “not seen as an area of concern” by Iron Triangle community members. He called the complaints about deferred voting a “bogus excuse” to keep the status quo, which ultimately helps the RPA keep its power on council.

“I’m also impacted by this deferred voting,” he said. “To me it’s more important to get the districts right.”

Arto Rinteela, president of theFairmede-Hilltop Neighborhood Council, questioned why the RPA members on council declined to meet with the neighborhood councils to come to a compromise on a map.

“They are supposed to represent us, right?” Rinteela said.

Ahmad Anderson, the son of Rev. Booker T. and Irma Anderson, said he was disheartened by attempts to usurp the effort by neighborhood councils for creating a new more equitable system of voting for council leaders.

“The gerrymandering has two ways that you can look at it. One is cracking, that is diluting the power of opposing party supporters across many districts,” Anderson said. “The other is backing, where they are concentrating the opposing party’s voter power in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts. Gerrymandering is what it is. Gerrymandering has been used to protect what we see now as the incumbents. It’s a way that politicians are picking their voters instead of voters picking their politicians.”