If the 9th District went north and avoided the Roanoke Valley, here's how far north it would have to go. Map by Robert Lunsford.

Here’s one of the big questions facing Virginia’s new redistricting commission, perhaps the biggest on this side of the state: Should the 9th Congressional District include the Roanoke Valley?

Historically, the Fightin’ Ninth has been a Southwest Virginia district. Until the early ’60s, the 9th went no farther north than Pulaski County (and even Wythe County was carved out to join the 5th District to the east). Since then, population changes in the state – growth in the urban crescent, declines in Southwest Virginia – have forced mapmakers to draw the 9th District farther north and east to take in enough people. In 1972, the 9th took in Montgomery County for the first time. In 1992, it started eating into Roanoke County. In 2002, it bit off part of Alleghany County. In 2012, took in Salem and all of Alleghany County. (You can find those old maps here.)

As the commission faces the task of drawing new district lines, the commissioners face this unforgiving math: Each new district should contain 784,672 residents. Right now, as it’s presently drawn, the 9th has only 696,755 people, so even if every locality now in the 9th stays in the 9th, the district is still going to have to pick up 87,917 people. Given that most of the localities in Southwest Virginia are losing population, and are likely to continue to lose population, mapmakers probably ought to draw a 9th that’s slightly over-populated (within the confines of what’s acceptable by court rulings, of course) because we all know that over the coming decade those numbers are going to shrink.

The 9th, as presently drawn, could easily pick up those numbers by gobbing up more of Roanoke County, or part of Roanoke, or some combination thereof.

It’s not quite that easy, though – or shouldn’t be. First, the commission has rightly said that it will start drawing maps from scratch, not use the existing maps, so the current map of the 9th District doesn’t really mean very much. As a practical matter, though, it’s still a good starting point for our discussion today because the 9th, hemmed in by Tennessee and North Carolina to the south, and Kentucky and West Virginia to the east, can only grow in a limited number of ways.

That’s a practical consideration. Here are two philosophical ones: First, should we be splitting localities any more than we have to? Let’s say “no.” Some splits are inevitable to make the math work, but can we make the math work for the 9th without splitting any localities? I bet we can! That means let’s not split Roanoke County between two congressional districts. Since Roanoke County is a doughnut with Roanoke and Salem in the middle, that means it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Should they be in the 9th or should they be out? There’s a political consequence to this, since the 9th’s current representative, Republican Morgan Griffith, lives in Salem, but let’s not pay attention to the politics. Instead, let’s focus on this question: Do we really want to make the 9th less rural? Adding the Roanoke Valley wouldn’t change the overall politics of the 9th – it would still be a Republican district, because adding all those Republican voters in Roanoke County would negate all the Democratic ones in Roanoke city – but it would make it substantially less rural. Adding the Roanoke Valley would change the character of the district in ways that are hard to predict, but which voters in rural areas might not appreciate. Urban voters generally don’t have to worry about the lack of broadband, for instance, but might be more interested in federal funding for city bus systems.

So here’s the challenge: Can we draw a reasonably shaped district that doesn’t include the Roanoke Valley? And also doesn’t split city and county lines?

Get out your calculators. Let’s go!

First, let’s draw lines that take the 9th no farther north than Montgomery County and no farther east than the Blue Ridge (so Carroll and Floyd become the eastern border). The population in that core part of the district adds up to 552,831 – or 231,841 people short of the ideal of 784,672. So where can we go to find 231,841 people without taking in the Roanoke Valley?

First let’s go north. The 9th already goes up to Alleghany County, so if we keep Craig County, Alleghany County and Covington in the district, that puts us at 578,863. Here’s the problem with going exclusively north and trying to work around the Roanoke Valley: The 9th could add in Bath, Highland, Rockbridge, Lexington, Buena Vista, Augusta, Staunton and Waynesboro and still would just be at 747,168. We could cheat and say that Botetourt County isn’t part of the Roanoke Valley; that gets the 9th to 780,764. At that point we’ve created a massive district that doesn’t make much sense – Scott County may not feel much commonality with Staunton – and we’re still short by 3,908 people. Maybe that’s close enough but the district is still huge. We’ve also effectively swapped congressmen because that map would put the 6th‘s Ben Cline (who lives in Botetourt) in the 9th and the 9th‘s Morgan Griffith (who lives in Salem) in some other district. The politics shouldn’t be a concern but the sheer size of the district should be.

Can we all agree that’s not a good way to go?

So let’s look east instead. The 9th already takes in Patrick County, Martinsville and part of Henry County. If we keep those and add in all of Henry? That gets us to 634,872. If we add in Franklin County, we’re up to 689,349. We could go north to Bedford County, but that starts to break up the Roanoke-Lynchburg corridor. So if we go farther east and add Pittsylvania County and Danville, then we’re at 792,440, some 7,768 more than we need (although, as I pointed out, it’s best to draw a 9th that’s slightly over-populated because it will quickly become under-populated). This is why sometimes localities get split, to make the math work out.

If the 9th District went east, here’s how far it would have to go. Map by Robert Lunsford.

For those who care about the politics, this would still be a Republican district, it just wouldn’t have an incumbent. Oh, well. The real question is: Does a 9th District that stretches all the way to Danville make sense? There are certainly some economic commonalities between Southwest and Southside. Heck, the whole rationale for Cardinal Press is that the two regions have a lot of things in common; both are mostly rural regions that are trying to reinvent their economies after traditional employers have declined or disappeared. However, by adding so much of Southside into the 9th District, we eliminate all hope of a purely Southside-focused district. Southside voters might not like that.

If the 9th District took in the whole Roanoke Valley, here’s what it would look like. Map by Robert Lunsford.

That brings us back to the solution this mapmaking exercise was hoping to avoid: having the 9th District take in the entire Roanoke Valley. If we start with that core of 536,766 from Montgomery County west, and then add in Roanoke, Roanoke County, Salem and Craig County, that’s 763,944. If we count Botetourt County as part of the Roanoke Valley (which we should), then we’re up to 797,640, somewhat above our target of 784,672. Politically, this is complicated – it puts two congressmen, Griffith and Cline, in the same district. The commission has said that shouldn’t be a consideration. But if you’re curious, if we didn’t include Botetourt County but added in Alleghany County and Covington instead, then we’d be at 781,904, just under our target, and Griffith and Cline would stay in separate districts. Keeping the Roanoke Valley metro intact by including Botetourt would be more logical, though; just as we shouldn’t split cities and counties, we shouldn’t split metro areas if we don’t have to. Either way, bringing in the core part of the Roanoke Valley raises that question about how much the nature of the district would be changed. However, a 9th District that runs from Botetourt County west is undeniably compact and contiguous and completely ungerrymandered. Geographically, it makes the most sense.

Now, for that question I teased earlier: Can we draw a purely Southside district? For that, check back tomorrow and let’s see what we can draw.

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.