Election law expert suggests five election districts for Isle of Wight

Published 10:58 am Wednesday, April 6, 2011

ISLE OF WIGHT—An election law expert told Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors Tuesday that retaining a five-district election plan has a better chance of being approved than changing it to a seven-district plan.

Christopher Nolen, a senior vice-president for McGuireWoods consulting, said the five-district plan submitted by the 2011 redistricting committee would probably get pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I’m confident that a five-member plan would be approved,” Nolen told supervisors at a work session.

The U.S. Voting Rights Act takes precedent when the Department of Justice looks to pre-clear redistricting, and the U.S. Attorney General’s office is very sensitive when it comes to retrogression of minority voting strength, he said.

Isle of Wight County currently has one majority-minority district in Hardy and neither redistricting plan changes that.

In both plans Hardy’s minority voting age is above 50 percent. The new five-district plan makes the minority voting age population 52.6 percent of the total population. The seven-district plan increases Hardy’s voting age minority population to 55.4 percent of the district’s total population.

“The (Department of Justice) wants to ensure we don’t try to dilute minority voter strength,” county attorney A. Paul Burton said. “Everything else is second place.”

With a change from five districts to seven districts the county would have only one district in seven that would be classified as a majority-minority district and the drop from 20 percent majority-minority with five districts to 14 percent with seven districts could be viewed as retrogression.

“Five districts has a high probability of being approved,” Burton said. “We have a significant problem in getting the seven-district plan approved. Whatever you decide, we’ll do our dead-level best to defend it.”

Retaining a five-district plan would increase the size in area of districts in the southern portion of the county while shrinking the area of districts in the northern portion, a concern for supervisor Joann Hall from the Hardy District, who said the plans could lead to power shift and a loss of communities of interest, preservation of which is a common factor in redistricting.

The one-man, one-vote guideline divides the total population of the county by the number of districts to allow for only a 10 percent deviation in population from district to district, Nolen said.

The ideal population number to hit in the five-district plan would be 7,054, Nolen said.

This means that sparse population leads to bigger districts in terms of area. Under the five-district plan the Windsor and Carrsville districts would increase in area, with district lines moving farther north, while the Newport District and others would decrease in area.

Time constraints compound the county’s redistricting decision, as an ordinance for the new plan must be in place by April 29 as suggested by Virginia’s Board of Elections in order to allow for overseas absentee voters to participate in the primary election.

A meeting and public hearing to discuss the issue is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, April 7, at the Isle of Wight County Courthouse. Public input could have an impact on the Department of Justice decision, Nolen said.

Supervisors discussed making a decision on a redistricting plan after the hearing either Thursday or Friday.