Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts is gone but I am still here to beat a different type of drum, this one about redistricting.
Be advised: The tune I’m about to play isn’t one that many people want to march to.
The question consuming Virginia’s new bipartisan redistricting commission is what constitutes a fair map.
The surprise map that both Democratic and Republican consultants came up with over the weekend draws 19 state Senate districts that lean Democratic, 15 that lean Republican and six that would be considered competitive, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project – although some Democratic partisans question VPAP’s definition of a competitive district. They think that map is entirely too generous
toward Republicans. They point out that four of those competitive districts lean Republican, with one in Southside (from Mecklenburg County and Lunenburg County to Isle of Wight County) having a 9% Republican margin, based on the 2016 presidential results.
The state Senate currently has a 21-19 Democratic advantage but Democrats think that given electoral trends in the state over the past decade – they’ve won every statewide election since 2009 – that they should have at least 22 seats, maybe more. The Richmond Times-Dispatch cites a study by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project that says an
I’m not here to argue those numbers. I’m here to talk about a different – but related – set of numbers.
The problem that Virginia Democrats have is a distribution problem. They may, indeed, have enough voters to win a majority in statewide elections – we’ll see about this year’s governor’s race, which is more of a toss-up than many Democrats care to admit. But those voters don’t live in the right places to force mapmakers to draw more Democratic seats in the General Assembly. Republicans have a similar distribution problem, just in reverse, and not as pronounced as the one Democrats have.
Let me explain: Look at the consolidated map that the two parties’ consultants agreed on. You’ll notice that almost all the blue districts – the Democratic districts – are in the urban crescent, especially Northern Virginia. (The district around Charlottesville and Albemarle County is the lone exception). This is where Democrats pile up votes in a statewide election. The catch is that once you start chopping the state up into 40 districts for the state Senate, or 100 districts in the House of Delegates, that concentration of votes makes it hard to draw a lot of Democratic districts because a whole lot of Democratic voters wind up in a relative handful of districts.
Here’s what I mean: The proposed District 2 on this map covers Alexandria and parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties. It’s 75.7% Democratic. That’s good news for the incumbent, Adam Ebbin. The big Democratic margins from there sure help the party in a statewide election, but in a state Senate contest about 25% of those voters are effectively wasted votes from the party’s perspective.
Democrats would be better off if some of those voters moved to, oh, say, the Roanoke Valley, where the proposed map draws state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, into a district that right now counts as 53% Republican.
In fact, of the eight Democratic districts in Northern Virginia in the proposed state Senate map, the least Democratic is 53% blue. If you don’t count that district, the next least-Democratic is 56%. Most are over 60% or, in two cases, more than 70% Democratic, and there doesn’t seem any logical way to draw them to make them less Democratic. That’s just how voters there vote.
If Democrats really wanted to be clever, they’d load up the moving vans and relocate a lot of their Northern Virginia voters into districts downstate. Democrats wouldn’t miss those voters in Northern Virginia – they’d still win, just by smaller margins – but by skimming off some of the “surplus” and adding it to downstate districts they could pick up more seats.
This is, at the statewide level, the same problem Democrats have nationally: Their voters are too concentrated in certain states, which makes it harder for them to win a majority in the Electoral College than it does for Republicans, who have now twice won electoral majorities without winning popular majorities. Democrats would be better off if they relocated a lot of their California voters to other states. In some ways, they have; that’s one reason why Arizona went Democratic in 2020. But just think of how many U.S. senators Democrats would have if they off-loaded a lot of their California voters into small states such as Wyoming and the Dakotas. (Or persuaded those existing voters there to vote Democratic, although that’s likely a much tougher sell than the joys of Minot in the winter.)
Republicans have the same problem, just not as severe. The proposed map makes the district in the state’s southwest corner 78% Republican (not much different from what it is now). That’s just fine for state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, but, like Ebbin in Arlington, he doesn’t need 78% to win, just 50% plus one. The point is, those “extra” Republican voters would do the party more good in some swing districts elsewhere in the state. Maybe Republicans could load up all those moving vans left empty after Democrats use them to move some of their voters out of Northern Virginia?
No, I’m not really proposing that people from Southwest Virginia move to Northern Virginia (although I can happily make the case that more people from Northern Virginia should move to Southwest or Southside, be they Democrats or Republicans).
In any event, here’s the essential point: Democrats are more concentrated than Republicans are. Under this proposed map, there would be four districts where Democrats poll more than 70% of the vote – two in Northern Virginia, two in the Richmond area. Republicans would have just two 70%-plus districts, both in Southwest Virginia. Dial the threshold down to two-thirds, and there would be six such Democratic districts, four in Northern Virginia and the two in Richmond, while Republicans would have just three – the two in Southwest Virginia and one in the Shenandoah Valley, long a Republican heartland. You can argue that some of this is map-making trickery but a lot of it isn’t. After all, Democrats controlled the state Senate when the current map was drawn and they still have only a 21-19 edge. The essential problem for Democrats is they aren’t as widely dispersed as Republicans are. If more of them lived in the outer suburbs of the urban crescent, it would be easier to draw more Democratic districts or at least more competitive ones. And if more of them moved to the Roanoke Valley, then it might not matter whether Roanoke and Roanoke County are combined into a single district or not.
The problem is we have a society that is not only politically polarized, it’s geographically polarized as well. The author Bill Bishop wrote eloquently about this in his book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.” Democrats, though, tend to cluster more than Republicans. Republicans have at least some metro areas in Virginia where they are competitive, particularly in Hampton Roads. Historic patterns of segregation certainly explain some of the clustering of Democratic voters, but that’s not a complete explanation for these trends, which Bishop points out are accelerating. Politically speaking, Democrats are at a disadvantage because they can’t win in rural Virginia at all while Republicans can win at least some suburbs. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Within recent memory you could have driven from Augusta County to the coalfields and never strayed once into a Republican district. Now all that’s changed, as voters have realigned. The few rural Democrats in office today, such as state Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County and state Sen. Lynwood Lewis of Accomack County, are kept in office by the metro Democrats in their respective districts – in Charlottesville in Deeds’ case, in Norfolk in Lewis’. (This redistricting map would cut Deeds off from those Charlottesville Democrats. They could still elect a Democrat, just not one who lives in Bath County).
It’s a free country. People can live wherever they want to live (or at least wherever they can afford to live; my dreams of a Malibu beach house haven’t yet come through). Just as elections have consequences, so do other decisions. In this case, the lifestyle choices that lead most Democrats to live cheek-by-jowl in metro areas makes it harder for them to elect a majority in the General Assembly. Or, for that matter, a president.