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

Virginia has embarked on an unprecedented – for us – process of letting a bipartisan commission draw new legislative districts.

This is surely an improvement over the previous process of the majority party in Richmond having sole control of the map-making. How much of an improvement, we’ll have to see. The process so far has been partisan and not particularly pretty. I, for one, wouldn’t be at all upset if the whole thing deadlocked and the responsibility for redistricting wound up in the hands of the Virginia Supreme Court because at least that way we might get what we haven’t gotten here – a nonpartisan process. The justices wouldn’t spread out a map on the conference room table and get out their Sharpies. They’d appoint some academic expert in mapmaking, something the commission expressly refused to do in favor of hiring dueling Democratic and Republican firms. But I digress.

At least now we have a commission that is officially accepting comments from Virginians who want to weigh in on how the lines should be drawn. The commission’s website so far posts more than 500 pages worth of comments. I’ve read through these and here are some observations:

  1. Lynchburg doesn’t want to be split between legislative districts. The problem with partisan mapmakers is that they care about creating a political advantage for their side and generally don’t give a whit about how many localities they have to split up in the process. This is true no matter which party does the drawing. The current maps carve up some localities like Thanksgiving turkeys. (For the record, state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, has repeatedly introduced legislation to discourage this and Democrats have repeatedly killed it.) There are several communities where there appear to be concerted letter-writing campaigns to make the case against being split. The most robust one comes from Lynchburg. Among the many “keep Lynchburg whole” letters are some from Mayor MaryJane Dolan and Vice Mayor Beau Wright. They and the other Lynchburgers point out that the Hill City is split between two House of Delegates districts and two state Senate districts, just not split the same way, which multiplies the number of ballots the city has to produce. “It is just stunning to think that two city residents of the same ward could have different representatives in Richmond,” the mayor writes. “A city our size with four wards and 18 precincts resulting in four different ballots is not only costly but totally ineffective.” She has one of the best and most succinct lines in all these comments: “The current map is peculiar.” Yes, yes it is. One of its state Senate districts (represented by Steve Newman, R-Bedford County), runs west across the Blue Ridge all the way to Craig County and the West Virginia line. The other (represented by Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg) runs east almost all the way to Short Pump. Whether mapmakers will listen to citizen comments is anybody’s guess but for what it’s worth, both the Democratic and Republican plans keep Lynchburg intact, although . . .
  2. Mountains should matter. Some in Amherst County don’t like being split, either. And they really don’t like it that much of Amherst is joined in a House of Delegates district that crosses the mountains over into Rockbridge County. “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,” writes Edward Kable. This isn’t just a problem in state legislative districts. Some in Amherst don’t like being in the 6th Congressional District, either, because most of that district is west of the Blue Ridge. “This can make it very difficult and sometimes dangerous to attend meetings on the other side of the mountain, especially in the winter months, at night,” writes the Amherst NAACP. “We ask that you put our county back together and put us on our side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We want to vote with our neighbors, with counties on our side of the mountain.” The consolidated plan that both Democratic and Republican mapmakers agreed on violates this rule. That state Senate district that keeps Lynchburg intact? It would cross the mountains to tack on Rockbridge, Lexington and Buena Vista. That’s just one of four Senate districts that cross the mountains, at least three of those unnecessarily.
  3. Locality lines should matter. There are lots of comments, from all around the state, making that case. Here’s the thing: When localities are split (outside of major metros where it’s unavoidable), it’s usually for some political purpose. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who would benefit from localities being kept intact. For instance, Montgomery County Supervisor Sara Bohn, a Democrat, wrote the commissioners to urge them to keep Montgomery County intact. The county is currently split between three House of Delegates districts and two state Senate districts. More specifically, she urged that Blacksburg and Christiansburg be kept in the same district. She writes: “Proponents of splitting Montgomery County, let alone the New River Valley, talk about ‘the number of representatives that we have in Richmond.’ That representation hasn’t ‘brought the bacon’ back to this area. It allows our representative to pick the low hanging fruit outside of Montgomery County, and not deal with the difficult issues in one of the biggest economic engines in southwest Virginia (second to Roanoke).” This is all logical but has political implications, since Blacksburg votes Democratic and Christiansburg votes Republican.

    The good news for those who want Montgomery County united in a single state Senate district: Both parties propose that. That district would also be very Republican, as I explained last week. In general, though, the Republican mapmakers are more observant of locality lines than Democratic mapmakers are. Now for three points that haven’t been addressed yet because no proposed congressional maps have been released yet.
  4. Some in Charlottesville don’t want to be part of the 5th Congressional District. Kay Ferguson is among those who write to say they don’t want to be part of a district anchored in Southside. She writes to say: “District 5 is drawn like a zipper to cancel my values and those of most of my community by including rural areas to the north and south that are historically more conservative … The current maps make it almost impossible to conduct a viable campaign for a challenging candidate whose positions reflect my own. I hope you will lead well on the new maps that must be drawn so that I and other Virginians can choose elected officials who represent, understand and serve us.” Umm, I have news for Ferguson: She’s probably going to be out of luck no matter how the maps are drawn. No matter which district Charlottesville is drawn into, it’s going to be with rural areas that are more conservative. That’s simply who it’s neighbors are. The only way to draw Charlottesville into a district that would elect a member of Congress that Ferguson would like would be to, um, gerrymander the maps. Charlottesville doesn’t belong in the 5th because it’s not culturally part of Southside, but to add Charlottesville to a district out of Northern Virginia or Richmond would involve the sort of gerrymandering this commission was designed to prevent. Sorry.
  5. Henry County wants to stay in the 9th Congressional District. The Fightin’ Ninth was historically a far Southwest Virginia district that, over time, has steadily expanded northward – and eastward. In 2002 for the first time, the district crossed the Blue Ridge to take in Patrick County and part of Henry County. In 2012, it moved farther east to add more of Henry County and all of Martinsville. This time around, county administrator Tim Hall has written the commission to say that Henry County would like to be entirely within the 9th District. Splitting localities is confusing and there’s no good reason to do it absent some necessity, which sure doesn’t seem to be the case where where counties with relatively small populations are involved (unlike, say, Fairfax County). However, putting all of Henry County (and Martinsville) in the 9th will complicate any efforts to create a more purely Southside district. (I’ll look more at this in coming days.)
  6. There’s not much interest in how the 9th District is drawn. This seems odd because the big question facing mapmakers on this end of the state is whether the 9th District expands to bring in all of the Roanoke Valley (it currently takes in Salem and part of Roanoke County). Adding the whole metro area to the 9th has the potential to change the character of the district. But only one person – Joan Kark of Pearisburg – wrote to address that issue directly. She’s in favor of it: “I would like to urge you to include the city of Roanoke in the 9th District. Roanoke is the heart of Southwest Virginia. Even its airport is named Roanoke-Blacksburg. The rest of Virginia identifies with Roanoke as a gateway to Southwest Virginia. Roanoke County and Roanoke are surrounded by mountains so they seem to be the essence of Southwest Virginia mountains.”

Over the coming days I’ll look at different ways to draw congressional districts in Southwest and Southside.

Finally, my favorite comment – not because of its partisan content but because we’ve all run across user-unfriendly websites – was this one from someone who gave his name only as TH: “Did Republicans design this site? It is extremely hard to use, slow to respond, and fails to make clear what current districts are. It appears to be an excellent voter suppression tool, at least as implemented on iPhones. Poor job. It’s about what the current political environment is expected to deliver.”

For those of a different ideological outlook, then I call your attention to this comment from Scott Wells of Hampton, who had choice words for Democratic state senator Mamie Locke: “I would advise everyone on the committee to have good, updated contact information for Senator M. Locke. I pray she’ll maintain better contact with this committee than she does her constituents.”

More to come, but not today.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His views are his own. Reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.