By Abigail Summerville
Grassroots activist group 50 Ways Rockbridge is turning its attention to the Virginia primaries in June and addressing how the legislature draws voting districts in the state.
Formed after the 2016 presidential election, 50 Ways Rockbridge will hold forums for candidates seeking to represent the community in Congress and encourage residents to vote. A vacancy was created in Virginia’s sixth district because Republican Bob Goodlatte decided against seeking re-election for what would have been his 14th term.
The group hosted a forum with Democratic candidate Peter Volson earlier this year. The members want to bring in more candidates so residents can meet them before the June 12 primaries, said Valentina Dimitrova, a coordinator for 50 Ways Rockbridge’s gerrymandering issue group.
“The key objective is to get the candidates to talk about the issues, to inform us what their priorities are, how they want to achieve their objectives, and to show us how knowledgeable and passionate they are about representing their district,” she said.
Tinni Sen, one of the group’s board members and founders, said 50 Ways Rockbridge has already reached out to Democratic candidates Jennifer Lewis, Charlotte Moore and Sergio Coppola. She said the group will also ask Del. Ben Cline, a Republican who is running for the seat, to participate in public meetings.
Dimitrova said the group has reached out to Cline on another issue that matters to its members—and that’s gerrymandering, a term used to describe when lawmakers manipulate the boundaries of electoral districts to favor a political party or group of people.
“The problem [with gerrymandering] is that district lines across Virginia have been manipulated to get a specific outcome,” she said. “In the context of Rockbridge County, the incumbent always wins. When they win, they don’t have an incentive to meet with their constituents.”
Sen said gerrymandering can also disenfranchise voters.
“It reduces the power of the democratic process … anyone in Lexington knows Republicans are likely to win, so they might not even vote,” she said.
On the other hand, group member Rita Douglas, a Lexington resident, said she doesn’t think citizens decide whether to vote based on whether they believe gerrymandering has occurred.
“Most people don’t know much about gerrymandering. They just know it’s unfair,” she said.
The group is also working on a mentoring initiative for middle and high school students. Sen said the group wants to support existing tutoring programs and create a peer counseling system.
“We want students to have a mentor to talk to, someone outside of the home or school system, like the big sibling model,” she said.