The Virginia Redistricting Commission meets in Richmond. Photo by Markus Schmidt

RICHMOND – A redrawing of Virginia’s congressional and legislative districts by the newly formed Virginia Redistricting Commission currently underway will likely significantly alter the current maps in the state’s Southwest and Southside. 

 The VRC’s mission is to redraw districts to reflect the results of the 2020 national census. The concept of one-person, one-vote dictates that districts should be roughly equal in population, but there are additional factors to be considered, including provisions in the federal Voting Rights Act, district shapes, geographical features, and potential competitiveness. 

“Regardless of how the maps are drawn, population growth is stagnant in much of Southwest and Southside Virginia, particularly compared to other parts of the state,” said Kyle Kondik, a political scientist at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “So the districts covering these areas are going to have to be geographically larger, no matter how they are otherwise drawn, which likely will have the effect of at least some lost representation compared to how it is now.” 

The 2020 census recorded a population of 8,631,393 Virginians – a 7.9% increase from 2010. But none of this happened in Southside, where nearly every locality west of Brunswick County has seen a flight of residents. The situation doesn’t look much better in Southwest Virginia – 15 counties west of Montgomery County lost population. 

Take House District 1, represented since 1994 by Del. Terry Kilgore, a Republican from Scott County. As the westernmost state House district in the commonwealth – shaped like a triangle and bordered on two sides by other states – it includes the city of Norton and parts of Lee, Scott and Wise counties. According to the most recent census, 72,160 currently live in HD1 – that’s 14,154 less than the average district’s population. 

“So it needs to get up to 86,314, or close to that, which is the new ideal, average population size for a Virginia House district,” Kondik said. “It is one of the most underpopulated House of Delegates districts in the state.”

To get to the required population size, the VRC could come up with new maps that would “radically alter Western Virginia, and hypothetically they could draw a longer, skinnier district running up the Kentucky border and another longer, skinnier district along the Tennessee border,” Kondik said. “But it probably makes more sense to just leave the district roughly intact but have it expand to the east to take on more population.”

The VRC has hired two sets of consultants – one Republican and one Democratic – to prepare maps the commission will use as a starting point. These drafts were first presented to the commission on Sept. 20. The map drawers did not yet take into account incumbent addresses or political data, and they did not base their drafts on the current maps, providing for a clean slate.

However, the maps created by the Democratic map drawers would give Democrats a slight edge in both chambers of the General Assembly; the GOP maps would favor Republicans in the Senate and produce an evenly split House of Delegates.​​ 

For the westernmost districts – firmly in Republican control – the maps barely deviate from each other. But a redrawing of the 12th House District, currently represented by Del. Chris Hurst, a Democrat from Montgomery County, would make the district even more competitive moving forward under the Republican plan, while the Democratic map would give Hurst an edge. Both maps would unite the city of Roanoke with Roanoke County, creating another competitive district. 

On the Senate side, a redrawing of the 25th District would spell potential trouble for incumbent Sen. Creigh Deeds, a Democrat from Bath County, as his district would get separated from Charlottesville, a Democratic stronghold, to be lumped together with the 24th Senate District currently represented by Sen. Emmett Hanger, a Republican from Augusta County, whom Deeds defeated in a 1991 House of Delegates election.

“The commission clearly has a lot of work ahead of them to marry these two sets of maps, and we are eager to hear their work plan moving forward,” said Liz White, executive director of OneVirginia2021, a nonprofit advocating for non-partisan redistricting. “How do they intend to turn two maps into one and how do they plan to incorporate all of the public input into the final product?”

Public input is especially vital in the mapmaking process for Southwest Virginia, since not one member of the VRC currently lives west of the Blue Ridge, White said. “The commission has a duty to draw fair and representative maps for all Virginians, but they can’t honor the needs of communities that they don’t know about.” Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, who joined the commission earlier this month, is the only member to come close, as his current district extends west of the mountains to take in Galax and part of Carroll County.

But in a surprising move, the commission Sunday released a single statewide plan for state Senate districts, which map drawers will formally present in a VRC meeting today. The map decreases the number of competitive districts and gives Republicans an edge – which prompted criticism from Democratic supporters on social media who see the plan as another attempt at gerrymandering under the umbrella of a supposedly bipartisan commission created to do just the opposite – make redistricting less partisan.

Until recently, the Virginia Constitution required the General Assembly to redraw Virginia’s state legislative and congressional districts every 10 years, using data from the latest national census. 

Changes in demographics sometimes force map drawers to merge two districts, resulting in a change of representation at the expense of one party. In 1991, state Sen. Jack Kennedy Jr., D-Wise County, lost his reelection bid after redistricting placed him in the same district as William C. Wampler Jr., a Republican from Bristol – a defeat that Kennedy remembers as “traumatic.”

“Wise County, which has about twice the population of surrounding counties, was divided into two House and two Senate districts, intentionally denying a Wise County resident to forge a united base of support for future state legislative races,” said Kennedy, who has has served since 1995 as clerk of court of Wise County and the city of Norton.

Process and methods of redistricting – no matter how it’s done – are divisive at best, Kennedy said. “In my view, it is leading to political spectrum extremism, unfortunately. Competition is a good thing for business and politics. Better ideas surface.” 

In November 2020, Virginia voters ratified a constitutional amendment that transfers the General Assembly’s redistricting responsibility to the newly created VRC – a bipartisan panel tasked with redrawing electoral districts before sending them to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. But some experts consider the commission’s makeup far from ideal. 

The VRC has 16 members; eight are legislators and eight are citizens, but really it has two eight-person commissions, said Henry Chambers, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond School of Law. “The commission cannot forward maps to the General Assembly unless six of the eight legislators and six of the eight citizens agree. That is a difficult majority to get,” Chambers said. 

Deeds, an advocate for independent redistricting since his election to the state Senate in 2001, backed the creation of the VRC in its current form, but not without reservations. “I think that this plan was flawed in a couple of respects, but I voted for it because it was the only one we could get out on the floor, that we could get an agreement on,” he said in an interview last week. 

His biggest concern, Deeds said, is that lawmakers still have a grip on the process. “The legislature shouldn’t be involved. The legislators are still involved in drawing the maps, and the panel itself is made up of 50% of legislators,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the best we could do. I’m hopeful that a good result will come out of it, but we’ll see.”

Another hurdle is time. State law gives the VRC just 45 days to draw up the maps for the House and Senate districts, and 60 days for the congressional map, before they are forwarded to the state legislature for approval. If a supermajority of the VRC fails to agree on redistricted maps, or the General Assembly fails to approve them, the Virginia Supreme Court will draw  the districts. 

It isn’t entirely clear at this time who would benefit more from new maps – Republicans or Democrats. “That is the great outstanding question about this redistricting process. The commission is supposed to be independent, so we don’t know who that helps,” said UVA’s Kondik. 

The state’s current House of Delegates and congressional maps were drawn by Republicans at the start of the last decade, but court action unwound those Republican-favoring plans significantly. The state Senate map was drawn by Democrats, although it took them until 2019 to actually win a majority on it. “The conservative state Supreme Court acts as a backstop if the redistricting process fails, and Democrats probably feel like they have more to fear from that court than Republicans do,” Kondik said. 

The finalized House and Senate maps are due Oct. 10; Congressional maps must be submitted to the General Assembly by Oct. 25.

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.