Similar challenges in Suffolk, Isle of Wight

Published 9:35 pm Thursday, March 17, 2011

By Stephen H. Cowles

The Tidewater News

As neighbors on the western edge and the outskirts of Hampton Roads, places where many from the core Tidewater cities have fled to escape traffic and urban sprawl, Suffolk and Isle of Wight are facing a similar problem as they begin their redistricting process this year.

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Both municipalities grew at a much faster rate on one end during the past 10 years, experiencing only slight population growth in their agricultural areas, leaving their leaders with the challenge of fairly and equitably drawing lines for new voting districts.

Isle of Wight County’s Redistricting Committee is considering expanding the county’s board of supervisors to seven from five.

The current election districts are Carrsville, Hardy, Newport, Smithfield and Windsor. Each is represented by one person on the Board of Supervisors.

The county’s population grew 18.6 percent during the past decade.

For about three and a half hours on Wednesday night, committee members went back and forth with suggestions on moving the lines drawn on a staff-test plan.

Don Robertson, the county’s public information officer and a committee member, had previously explained that one of the challenges of redistricting is in maintaining equal voting districts.

Further, there’s more growth in the northern portion of the county than the southern part. Plus, some districts are geographically larger but have less population density.

Suffolk, whose population grew 32.8 percent during the same period — with growth concentrated similarly in the northern parts of the city — is facing similar challenges as it begins its own redistricting process.

Ed Easter, chairman of Isle of Wight’s Redistricting Committee, said Thursday the group “completed a working, seven-district plan on Wednesday.”

“But we still have research to do,” Easter said. “There’s just one majority-minority district (Hardy). We need to go back and take a real in-depth look and get a minimum of two majority-minority districts.”

Suffolk has three districts that are mostly black, three that are mostly white and one that is considered a “toss-up.” Some City Council members have expressed their desire to protect that setup.

In fact, whatever plans the city and Isle of Wight develop will have to pass inspection by the U.S. Department of Justice, which will decide whether either municipality disenfranchises any group with its plan.

Back in Isle of Wight, the discussion has not settled on a particular idea yet, despite the discussion on Wednesday.

One concern over increasing the number of districts is expense. Robertson wondered if more voting machines and poll workers would be required, for example.

Easter said that the committee “cannot make a judgment call on costs.”

“We don’t have the authority to decide which plan is appropriate,” he said. “The Board (of Supervisors) will decide which is appropriate.”

“It’s important to remember that the Department of Justice will ask why five to seven,” said Chris Noland, an attorney from Richmond and an expert on redistricting. “It could even ask for the lines to be redrawn.”

The public may comment on the county’s proposed redistricting plans when the group meets at 6 p.m. on Wednesday in the Board of Supervisors’ Room at the Courthouse.

Hard copies of the proposed map plans will be available and are also expected to be accessible at the county attorney’s office beforehand.

—R.E. Spears III contributed to this report.