If both Democrats and Republicans agree on a single redistricting map, does that automatically make it a good one?
No, and the one they released over the weekend for the state Senate shows why.
Some of the districts in this part of Virginia are perfectly logical, but others look as if they were drawn by someone who has no concept of life on the ground in Southwest and Southside Virginia. And why are we surprised, you might ask?
The main problem is that some districts cross back and forth over the Blue Ridge Mountains, something that many voters have complained about with the current districts.
That’s an objection peculiar to our part of the world, one that may not trouble those further to the east. But the other problem with this map (which the Virginia Redistricting Commission spent Monday haggling over) is one that should concern everyone in Virginia: These districts as originally drawn would increase the polarization of Virginia politics, and in very unhealthy ways.
Let’s deal with the mountain-crossing issue first. If you read through all the written comments filed with the commission (which I have), you’ll come across lots like this one from Edward Kable of Amherst County, who wrote to complain that he lives in a House district represented by a legislator on the other side of the mountains. “Please put us back together, and unite us along the U.S. 29 corridor, instead of joining us with folks on the other side of the mountains, in Rockbridge County.” Yet this map does just that, and not just with Amherst and Rockbridge.
Now, those of a more flatland sensibility may wonder why we in the mountains are complaining about having to cross them, but they do serve to shape our lives – and the way we do business with one another. This should be the cardinal rule: Counties west of the Blue Ridge shouldn’t be joined with counties east of the Blue Ridge, and vice versa. This map does that four times and at least three of those are avoidable.
Let’s work west to east.
The district drawn for the state’s most Southwest corner makes sense. It would go from Lee County in the east to Buchanan County in the north and then east to Bristol and Washington County (where state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, lives). This is as close to a logically-shaped district as you can get.
Next we come to the district that would be home to state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County. It would take in Tazewell, Smyth, Bland, Wythe, Pulaski, Grayson, Galax, Carroll and Floyd – all of which are logical enough. But then it crosses the Blue Ridge to bring in Patrick County. This is both illogical and unnecessary. Illogical because traffic in Patrick tends to flow east, towards Martinsville, not west over the mountains. It’s also unnecessary because mapmakers could have easily added Giles County instead. Both are about the same size – Giles has 16,787 people, Patrick has 17,608.
But then things get worse, much worse. The mapmakers draw a district that does exactly what Kable and others complained about. It stretches from Lynchburg to Lexington. More accurately, it includes Bedford County, Lynchburg and Amherst County east of the mountains and Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista west of the mountains. Population-wise, 82.8% of that district is east of the mountains, which effectively disenfranchises the 17.1% west of the mountains. Clearly the mapmakers have never tried to drive across U.S. 60. (I’m indebted to the Virginia Public Access Project for these numbers.)
This district would also put two Lynchburg-area Republicans into the same district – Steve Newman and Mark Peake – but I’m not really concerned about incumbents here. I’m concerned about logically shaped districts and this one isn’t. There’s also no political reason to combine these two areas. With the exception of Lexington (which accounts for just 3.4% of the population anyway) all these places are strongly Republican. At least gerrymandering serves some base political purpose; this map serves none.
Go a little further north and we find this district’s opposite – one that’s mostly west of the Blue Ridge but with an odd addition east of the mountains. The district centered in Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro goes west to pick up Highland County, then north to take in Harrisonburg and part of southern Rockingham County. All that’s logical enough, but then it crosses Afton Mountain to add Nelson County. Why? Yes, I realize this is all a jigsaw puzzle but it’s still unnecessary. I understand that at some point some district somewhere might have to cross the mountains just to make the math work out but do we really need so many mountain-crossers?
There’s another district further north that also crosses the mountains, uniting Page and Warren with Fauquier, but that’s outside our coverage area so I’ll leave those folks to make their own case. Instead, let me call attention to another weirdly shaped district that has nothing to do with mountains. In the heart of Southside, these bipartisan mapmakers draw a district that runs from the outskirts of Lynchburg to the outskirts of Richmond, from the North Carolina line to north of I-64.
The roll call of localities in this elongated district: Appomattox County, Amelia County, Campbell County, Charlotte County, Cumberland County, Goochland County, Halifax County, Powhatan County, Prince Edward County – and then, just to make the numbers work out, a smidge of Louisa County to bring in 25 voters. Some districts have to be big by necessity but big can still be logical. This one is not. In fairness, it’s shape is probably complicated by other factors – the further east mapmakers go, the more they encounter counties with sizable minority populations and the challenges of complying with the Voting Rights Act. And the one just to the east of it, which runs from Mecklenburg and Nottoway counties to Isle of Wight County does make a lot of sense (although state Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg, may not like being drawn into a district that’s only 53% Republican). I’ll concede that not every district can be logically shaped. Still, I’ll point out that this one in Southside is not, although some Southside politicians might like this aspect of it: This district would have no incumbent, so represents an opportunity for somebody.
Now, all those are admittedly parochial concerns but this one is not: This map would create a more polarized state Senate. It would effectively eliminate the only two Democratic state senators west of the Blue Ridge – Creigh Deeds of Bath County and John Edwards of Roanoke – by putting them into Republican-leaning districts. I’m less concerned about the individual fates of those two gentlemen than I am about our overall civic health. Under this map, every single Democratic-leaning district would be in the urban crescent; virtually all the Republican ones (with the exception of one Chesterfield County-based district and one that covers parts of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach) would be in rural areas.
Think about what that would be. An election would determine not just which party controls the chamber, but which part of the state – and which prevailing culture. That does not seem healthy. I can tell you that rural areas now are very uncomfortable with a state government so dominated by metropolitan interests; I doubt metro areas would like it if rural areas were lording over them. All this is accentuated, of course, by how America’s ethnic diversity is not uniformly distributed. A government elected by those ethnically diverse metro areas looks as foreign to many voters in predominantly white rural areas as a government elected by those rural areas would to metro areas. This can’t be good. It’s bad enough when the government is run by the other party – whatever you think the other party is – but at least we all understand that sometimes you lose an election (or at least we did until January 6). If that government looks nothing like you (from either side), well, that would seem to make it harder to accept the results. It’s not by accident that one of the most talked about pieces of political commentary this month has been an op-ed in The Washington Post that warned the country is on the verge of a civil war. We could all stand to tone things down.
So here’s my point: Virginia would be better off if we had some rural, western Democrats and some Republican legislators from Northern Virginia (especially if they weren’t so, umm, white). Both would serve a useful function, by moderating their respective caucus’ and helping them understand parts of the state that aren’t naturally Democratic or Republican. We saw those geographical divisions at play earlier this year when every Democrat on the House Privileges and Elections Committee except one voted down a proposed constitutional amendment (from state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County) that would have closed the state’s loophole that allows for disparity between affluent (suburban) schools and poor (mostly rural) ones. That lone exception: Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, one of just two House Democrats from this part of the state. (And the other one, Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery County, sponsored a similar constitutional amendment that met the same fate).
Obviously having some Democrats from western Virginia didn’t stop urban crescent Democrats from failing to understand the problems of rural Virginia, but imagine a Democratic majority with no voices from this part of the state. Likewise, Northern Virginia voters would feel just as disenfranchised if there were a Republican majority with no GOP legislators from their part of the state.
This map makes that kind of political diversity virtually impossible. Now, ultimately, the mapmakers aren’t at fault here. Voters are. Once rural Virginia elected lots of Democrats and the metro areas elected lots of Republicans, but voters have realigned. It’s probably impossible to save Deeds: Once he had a base in the Alleghany Highlands; now those voters have become Republicans. The only reason he’s in office now is his current district does what I just said it shouldn’t do: It crosses the mountains so that a Bath County Democrat can get elected by voters in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Meanwhile, the main trend in the past few election cycles has been for suburban voters to chuck Republicans by the wayside.
I don’t envy the mapmakers, who have lots of considerations to balance. But we all ought to be concerned about a political environment that so sharply divides us into either red or blue and leaves little room for purple.
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.