RICHMOND – For the Southwest, a major question being considered by the Virginia Redistricting Commission is whether heavily Republican Roanoke County and heavily Democratic Roanoke City should remain in two separate state Senate districts.
The currently unresolved issue has come into play this week as the commission attempts to redraw state and national districts according to the 2020 Census that are fairly equal in population, ensure the interests of minorities under the federal Voting Rights Act, and consider geographical compactness and political competitiveness. Given the demographics of Southwest Virginia, racially polarized voting doesn’t factor as much into decisions on where to draw lines in the region as it does in others. But concerns about maintaining political competitiveness and the urban and rural character of localities – particularly in the case of Roanoke City and County – do.
“The existing situation is that Roanoke city and Blacksburg are in one district and most of Roanoke County and Christiansburg are in a different state district, which is why we have one [Democratic state Senator John Edwards] from Roanoke City and one [Republican state Senator David Suetterlein] from Roanoke County right now,” said Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax at a meeting of the commission on Monday. (Currently, no member of the commission hails from west of the Blue Ridge.)
A compromise map presented on Monday put the city and most of Roanoke County into a single district that would lean Republican, but whether to let it stand hasn’t yet been determined.
Combining them would make for fierce political contests that could have a more equal chance of erring in either direction for Democrats or Republicans. In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s both Roanoke County and city were in the same district, which resulted in a series of competitive elections, that continuously shifted the balance of power. An analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project projected a combined city-county district would be 53% Republican.
In regard to aims in other parts of the state, the commission had voted to approve a Senate map drawn by Republican experts for Hampton Roads, but that vote was reversed due to the absence of Del. Dolores McQuinn, D-Richmond on Monday. One item agreed upon was to leave Portsmouth in one district. The rest is yet to be determined.
The commission has until Oct. 10 to complete maps for the Virginia House and Senate and until Oct. 25 to complete a map for Virginia U.S. House seats.
Leah Small is a freelance journalist who enjoys writing about Virginia and national politics, social justice, health, science and craft beer. Proud to be an extended member of the Cardinal News family, reporting from Richmond.