If the Virginia Redistricting Commission does nothing else – and it may not – it’s at least shown us how bad redistricting could be if left to just a single political party.
The bipartisan commission, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, so far has mostly been an exercise in partisan gridlock. The political sausage has never been ground quite so publicly. Consider, though, the alternatives.
We’ve seen both parties, apparently with a straight face, put forth some maps that meet the very definition of the gerrymandering that voters said they didn’t want when they approved the constitutional amendment that created this commission.
Without the commission, some of these gerrymandered Democratic maps might actually become law. Without the commission, if Republicans regain control of the General Assembly, some of these gerrymandered Republican maps might actually become law. We should be grateful that some of these won’t be so quickly rubber-stamped.
This commission is a hard thing to love. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a commission – with equal parts Republican legislators, Republican activists, Democratic legislators, Democratic activists. It’s not designed to be objective or neutral. That’s a design flaw with the legislation, not the sentiment behind trying to wrest control of gerrymandering away from whichever party happens to be in power at the time. You might even argue that it’s designed to fail – it’s hard to see how Democrats and Republicans can compromise on some of these maps – in which case the task of drawing new districts will get bounced to the Virginia Supreme Court. That’s not a bad outcome, as far as I’m concerned, because I suspect the justices would try to avoid some of the obvious howlers we’ve seen proposed in some of these maps.
- Republicans tried to gerrymander the New River Valley: The original Republican House map proposed some obvious political mischief in the New River Valley district now represented by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery County. That district presently is very much a swing district, which is one reason why Hurst this fall faces a strong challenge from Republican Jason Ballard. It’s surely no accident that the first plan Republicans proposed would have made that district a little less “swingy” by carving out Democratic-voting Radford and adding a lot of Republican-voting rural areas. Umm, if you’re looking to define districts by compactness and “communities of interest” – two criteria that are often at odds but here are in alignment – then it sure makes sense that the two college towns of Blacksburg and Radford, only about 25 minutes apart, should be in the same district. (Sorry, Republicans.) For whatever reason, Republicans have relented and their latest maps now keep Blacksburg and Radford together, as they should be.
- Now Democrats are trying to gerrymander both the Roanoke and New River valleys: Republicans are hardly alone in trying to carve up districts for partisan advantage. Look at what Democrats are trying to do with the state Senate. The first Democratic maps were noteworthy because, in this part of Virginia, they largely agreed with the Republican maps. Both parties drew a compact Senate district in the Roanoke Valley that put Roanoke, Salem and most of Roanoke County together. That’s so geographically logical that it could be used as a textbook example of how to draw a district – except that it was politically inconvenient for Democrats, because it would have put state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, into a district that would be nearly 54% Republican (and also have a Republican incumbent, in state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County). Why Democrats agreed to this in the first place is a mystery, but they should get kudos for putting compactness over partisan interests.
Clearly something went on behind the scenes, because first Edwards sent out a release decrying the maps that would separate the Roanoke Valley from the New River Valley and then, lo, there soon was a Democratic map that would put them together. Well, pieces of them. That Democratic map takes Democratic-voting Roanoke, then draws a narrow corridor through Cave Spring and Bent Mountain in Roanoke County, through the Alleghany Springs section of Montgomery County, comes in south of Republican-voting Christiansburg and then loops around to pick up Democratic-voting Radford and Blacksburg. Based on the 2016 presidential results (we’re indebted to the Virginia Public Access Project for this analysis), the district would tilt ever-so-slightly Democratic. Not ideal for Democrats but better than the 54% Republican district initially proposed. This is a district with such a contorted shape that it’s ripe for ridicule. If one of Elbridge Gerry’s districts looked like a salamander, what slithering creature does this one look like?
Edwards makes a good case for why the Roanoke and New River valleys have much in common. Among them: “Thousands of commuters travel daily on I-81 between the two valleys. Many who live in one valley work, do business and enjoy entertainment in the other valley.” All that’s true. The irony: This proposed district doesn’t use I-81 to connect the two valleys. There’s no road system that follows this map. Put another way, you can’t drive from one end of this district to the other. Maybe that should be one criteria for a district? The sole purpose of this district is to try to create a district where a Democrat might win. That’s the kind of political gamesmanship the commission was created to stop.
Here’s how clever and precise those Democratic mapmakers were: In drawing their lines through Cave Spring, they made sure to avoid Suetterlein’s home by carving out what he calls “the peninsula of Cave Spring.” They come within two blocks of his residence but are careful to put him in a solidly Republican district that stretches all the way to Giles County on one end and Bath County on the other. It’s a district that would be politically favorable for Suetterlein, but he still urged the commission last week to reject the plan, on the grounds that it’s not compact – something he cares about more than the Democratic mapmakers.
Still, this Democratic map does raise a question worth exploring: How, exactly, should we define “a community of interest”? Is it purely geographic? Edwards is right that there are definite commonalities among Blacksburg, Radford and Roanoke – the universities in those first two places now have a major presence in the Star City. Does that mean is it OK to slice up Montgomery and Roanoke counties to connect those three places? Does creating a “community of interest” outweigh the interest of respecting city and county lines? In general, Democrats seem more concerned about the former, Republicans more concerned about the latter. That’s possibly because Democrats are generally more concerned about minority voting rights than Republicans seem to be. That comes up in how the two parties disagree on the role that race should play in designing districts, although race isn’t really a factor in this part of the state. We have laws to protect the voting interests of racial minorities from being submerged in districts where they’d have diluted influence. Democratic voters in Southwest Virginia are a different sort of minority, just not one whose interests are legally protected.
Or is it just Democrats’ tough luck that their voters in those three places don’t live quite close enough together? (Or, perhaps it’s the tough luck of voters in Montgomery County, who once again would find their county carved up for political purposes?) Which is the greater outrage here – the Republican attempt in the House maps to separate Blacksburg and Radford or the Democratic attempt in this Senate map to unite them with Roanoke using some back roads and some territory with no roads at all?
- The two political parties aren’t the only ones proposing gerrymanders. The beauty of this commission (and the Virginia Public Access Project, which makes the maps more visually accessible) is that we can see maps proposed by various interest groups or even ordinary citizens. The New Virginia Majority, a left-leaning group that says it is concerned about “the power of marginalized communities,” has also proposed a map that would tie Roanoke, Blacksburg and Radford together, although at least the New Virginia Majority would use I-81 to do it and not some back roads. If we’re OK with splitting up localities to create a more cultural definition of a “community of interest,” then this is a much more straightforward way to map those communities together.
The New Virginia Majority would also keep – and expand – the current gerrymander that puts state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, in a mountain-crossing district that conveniently gives him a lot of Democratic voters in Charlottesville. The New Virginia Majority would draw that map to run from Covington to Charlottesville; apparently their definition of “marginalized communities” does not involve the conservative rural voters of the Alleghany Highlands who would be quite outvoted by the more liberal urban and suburban voters of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Curiously, the New Virginia Majority seems more concerned about keeping Deeds in office than Democrats are. All the Democratic maps would separate him from the Democratic base in Charlottesville and Albemarle. (Although in terms of actual seats, the Democrats would draw a Charlottesville-based seat that would surely elect a Democratic senator; it just wouldn’t be Deeds unless he moved.)
Likewise, the New Virginia Majority also draws some potential swing districts in Southside that Democrats apparently missed. They have a district with Lynchburg and some of Amherst County that appears quite logically shaped (as you can tell, I’m more concerned about logical patterns than political outcomes). They also have another that would connect Martinsville and Danville – although uniting those two cities is something that the mayor of Martinsville warned the commission against. This group’s map raises an interesting political question: Why are Democrats passing up a chance to push these opportunities?
- We still have too many districts that cross mountains when they don’t have to. Both parties are at fault here. Both the latest Democratic and Republican Senate maps create a district that has Lynchburg, Bedford County and Amherst County on one side of the Blue Ridge and Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista on the other. This is exactly what many voters have told the commission they didn’t want – districts that cross mountains. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s no political reason to draw this district this way – both sides are solidly Republican. Drawing this district doesn’t make it easier to draw either Republican or Democratic districts nearby (not surprisingly, they’re all Republican). This is just a fundamental misunderstanding of how people on the ground live their lives. The Blue Ridge ought to be a bright dividing line unless there’s simply no other way to make the math work out. The effect of this particular district would be to disenfranchise the voters on the west side of the mountains, who would account for just 17.1% of the district. Their senator would almost always be on the other side of the Blue Ridge from them.
Both parties also insist on drawing a House district that puts most of Botetourt County together with Bedford County – another mountain-crossing district. True, the mountains that U.S. 460 goes through between Blue Ridge and Montvale aren’t as onerous as those that you’d have to cross in the Senate district described above. And true, this generally matches the current shape of the district represented by Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County. But that’s not a logically shaped district, either, so perpetuating one bad map doesn’t make it any better simply because there’s some precedent. Botetourt and Bedford don’t make for a logical district. (Full disclosure: I live in Botetourt County. I know these things. I have far more reasons to drive north to the Alleghany Highlands or south to the Roanoke Valley than I ever do to drive east into Bedford.)
- We have too many districts in Southside that are weirdly shaped. By weirdly shaped, I mean they don’t match how people travel. With the notable exception of U.S. 29, the main roads through Southside – U.S. 58 and U.S. 460 – run east to west. But both parties have drawn lots of districts that go north to south. Not everything can be perfect; drawing maps and making all the math work out and not violate laws or court rulings in the process is challenging. But these still aren’t good maps. We heard speakers at last week’s public hearing on Southside complain about maps that separate Halifax and Mecklenburg counties, which are regarded as natural companions. Both parties’ House maps do this, just in different ways.
Will Supreme Court justices wind up having to fix problems that both parties want to foist on us?
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. Reach him at email@example.com.