Here's how to draw a 5th Congressional District that's purely Southside. Map by Robert Lunsford.

Today’s question: Is it possible for the Virginia Redistricting Commission to draw a congressional district that’s purely in Southside Virginia?

The short answer is “yes,” and I’ll show you how it can be done.

First, though, some history. There once was a time when that question would have been silly and unnecessary. In the 1960s, there were not one but two districts that covered Southside Virginia – the 5th on the west side, the 4th on the east – and even they didn’t cover all of Southside. In those days, the 6th took in Bedford County, Lynchburg and Campbell County, all arguably part of Southside. (If you want to argue that point, let’s do it another day; we have work to do here.)

Now – well, now things are different. Southside is split between two different districts – still the 5th and the 4th – but neither is a purely Southside district. The 5th is a gerrymandered mess that runs from the North Carolina line to the outskirts of Northern Virginia in Fauquier County. It’s geographically bigger than six states – Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Can we all agree this doesn’t make sense? Apparently not, or this wouldn’t have been approved in the first place. Fie on them! Let’s try to draw a purely Southside district.

That task will be helped considerably if the 9th District is drawn so that it doesn’t go east of the Blue Ridge as it does now. Yesterday, I showed two ways that the 9th could be drawn so that it stays entirely west of the Blue Ridge (one way makes a lot more sense than the other).

So let’s begin by having the 5th take back from the 9th Patrick County, Martinsville and Henry County, which is currently split between the two districts. That brings us to another guiding principle here: Let’s not split counties and cities unless we absolutely have to. Another guiding principle: We don’t want the 5th to take in Charlottesville and Albemarle County the way it does now. They’re not part of Southside. That university city and the prosperous county around it are at odds with the rest of the district – culturally, economically, politically. Voters there would surely be happier to be in a different district. Some have already told the commission that. “The rural areas seem to have the advantage,” Barbara Jackson of Albemarle County told the commissioners. “I would like to see less of southern Virginia in this district.” Or we could have more of southern Virginia and none of Charlottesville and Albemarle.

So here are our guiding principles for a Southside district: no 9th District east of the Blue Ridge, no splitting localities unless forced to, no Charlottesville and Albemarle. Let’s go!

First, let’s draw the core part of the district. We’ll draw a western border that includes Patrick, Franklin, Bedford and Amherst counties, then follow the James River east to Cumberland County, then draw a straight line south that takes in Prince Edward, Lunenburg and Mecklenburg counties. That gets us 637,356 people. The target for each congressional district is 784,672, so we’re only 147,316 short.

Of course, “only” is a relative term. Southside has lots of small counties, so we’re going to have to add a lot more territory to bring in the required number of people. Since we’re not pushing north to Charlottesville, the only option is to keep going east. At that point, we start picking up counties that are more oriented toward Richmond than they are toward Lynchburg or Danville, but that can’t be helped. Amelia is a lot more Southside than Albemarle. Eastward ho!

So let’s add in Powhatan, Amelia, Dinwiddie, Greensville and Emporia. Now we’re at 757,549, so we’re only 27,143 people short. Almost there! We could go north to Goochland County and pick up 24,727 people and maybe call it a day. See how easy that was?

But wait – we have a problem.

Dinwiddie, Greensville and Emporia are currently in the 4th District. So what? you might ask. Here’s the thing: The 4th isn’t a majority-Black district but it’s pretty close – it’s 41% Black, according to the last redistricting. We shouldn’t impinge on the ability of mapmakers to draw Black majority districts (or something close); that’s a good way to run afoul of the courts. So let’s back off and forswear any interest in Dinwiddie, Greensville and Emporia.

So let’s go back to Nottoway and Brunswick counties as our eastern boundary and Goochland as our northern one. Then we’re at 712,445 and need to get to 784,672, so we still need 72,227 more.

Let’s go ahead and add Nelson County. I was trying to keep that attached to Charlottesville and Albemarle – it’s sort of a “tweener” county that’s pulled in lots of different directions. Adding Nelson brings in 14,775 people so brings us to 727,220 which means we’re still 57,452 short. The easiest way would be to push a little further north and incorporate Louisa County – that’s 37,596. That puts us at 764,816 or 19,856 under our target. The nearest available county is Fluvanna, with a population of 27,249. That puts us about 8,000 people over our target, so we may have to lose some voters somewhere. This is why mapmakers wind up splitting counties. 

The jjag north of the James River to bring in all or parts of Fluvanna, Goochland and Louisa takes us away from Southside — however you define that — but it’s better than the two alternatives – going further east, which complicates efforts to draw Black majority districts, or swallowing up Charlottesville and Albemarle County. 

Politically, this district would be very Republican – but politics haven’t been the concern here, a logical geography has been. Right now, the 5th is a generally Republican district where Democrats occasionally think they have a shot at winning (although they haven’t, not in its current configuration). This map would make for a solidly Republican district. Republicans ought to like that. Democrats might, too, because it makes all those Democratic voters in Charlottesville and Albemarle available for some other district (the logical thing would be to include them with the Shenandoah Valley in a reconfigured 6th District that runs up both I-81 on one side of the mountains and up U.S. 29 on the other). Whether those Democrats would tilt that other district blue is something I don’t know; depends on how it’s drawn. But if we’re going to truly avoid gerrymandering, then politics shouldn’t be a consideration at all.

So there you have it, a congressional district that’s as pure a Southside district as possible. And, for good measure, a 9th District that’s entirely west of the Blue Ridge. What do you think? More importantly, what does the Virginia Redistricting Commission think?

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.