If you read through all the citizen comments filed with Virginia’s redistricting commission – as I have – you’ll learn several things.
A lot of people in Lynchburg don’t want the city split between multiple House of Delegates and state Senate districts. Henry County officially wants to be fully within the 9th Congressional District. And some Democrats don’t like being in Republican-dominated districts. I discussed Lynchburg last Monday and the shape of the 9th District last Tuesday (which is related to the shape of the 5th District that I wrote about last Wednesday). Today I’ll look at those lonely, outnumbered Democrats.
Many of those who have written the commission are in and around Charlottesville, which is currently part of the 5th Congressional District. “I am gerrymandered away from having a voice and a strong vote,” writes Kay Ferguson of Charlottesville. She complains that in the General Assembly, “my community of Charlottesville/Albemarle County has been carved up like a pig for the express purpose of canceling my progressive values.” I should point out that while Charlottesville and Albemarle are carved up, one of those state Senate districts is represented by a Democrat – Creigh Deeds, although he lives several mountain ranges over in Bath County. That’s a sore point with Ferguson: “District 25 is drawn to reach in for just a sliver of my community, divorce it from the cultural center of Charlottesville and dilute it with far flung rural areas that are more traditionally conservative and whose needs concerns and challenges are utterly different from my own.” Can’t really argue there.
She doesn’t like the 5th Congressional District, either. “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.” Or, as she seems to want, elect Democrats.
She’s not alone. Barbara Jackson of Keswick in Albemarle County doesn’t like the 5th District, either. “The rural areas seem to have the advantage. I would like to see less of southern Virginia in this district.”
Others said much the same. OK, I get it, Charlottesville and Albemarle vote heavily Democratic, and those voters don’t like being in a district that doesn’t. (Joe Biden took 85.5% of the vote in Charlottesville, 65.7% in Albemarle. Presidential votes aren’t compiled by congressional district, but at the same time Democrats were racking up those numbers in and around Charlottesville, Republican Bob Good was winning the 5th District congressional seat with 52% of the vote. That tally was on the low side; no Democrat has won the 5th in its current configuration.)
On the other hand, sometimes voters are just out of luck due to where they live. Charlottesville and Albemarle don’t have enough voters to constitute a congressional district all their own – and all the localities around them are ones that vote Republican. No matter how the lines are drawn, those Democratic voters in Charlottesville and Albemarle are going to find themselves in a district with a lot of rural Republicans. Still, this raises a question worth exploring: Is there a way to draw the lines to put all those Charlottesville Democrats in a Democratic-leaning district? Maybe there’s a way to draw some lines that attach Charlottesville to a district in Northern Virginia, or a district anchored in Richmond. Hold that thought.
Those Democratic voters in Charlottesville and Albemarle aren’t alone in feeling outvoted. So does Sarah Ovink of Blacksburg, who writes: “I’m tired of living in a non-competitive district. Our congressional representative, H. Morgan Griffith, does very little for our area (District 9) and yet there is no way to hold him accountable, because he easily wins with about 70% of the vote every time.” (He was actually unopposed last time around but has never polled below 61% in the district’s current configuration.) Ovink goes on to write: “I hope that the commission will take the trouble to draw district lines that ensure that every district is competitive. Non-competitive districts are good for no one except incumbents; no one even bothered to run against Griffith in 2020, recognizing the hopelessness of the situation, and leaving voters with no choice at all. I hope the commission also makes districts physically smaller, so that politicians can’t hide behind the excuse of physical size to avoid meeting with and being accountable to the public.”
This is what’s known as magical thinking. The 9th District can’t be made physically smaller. Most of the localities in the district lost population during the last decade. The 9th has to be made geographically bigger for it to take in enough people. Nobody likes that, no matter what their political persuasion is, but that’s just math, unforgiving math.
It also shouldn’t be the commission’s goal to draw competitive districts. It should be the commission’s goal to draw logically shaped districts. If that has the happy side effect of creating more competitive districts, that’s great, but the commission’s goal should be geography and communities of interest – not politics. (That’s assuming, of course, the commission can find a way to draw any districts, but that’s a different story). In any event, there are lots of places where it’s simply impossible to draw competitive districts, even with gerrymandering. Southwest Virginia, for instance. Too many Republican voters, not enough Democratic ones. Good for the former, tough luck for the latter.
Still, Ferguson in Charlottesville and Ovink in Blacksburg do give rise to a question. We do have some blue islands in this vast red sea. Is it possible to connect them together in a single district that might vote Democratic? Or at least be more competitive than our current congressional districts are? The idea isn’t as preposterous as you might think. Radford and Blacksburg are the two westernmost Democratic outposts in Virginia. And then there are all those Democratic voters in Charlottesville and Albemarle County who are unhappy about being submerged in a district that’s otherwise rural and Republican. What would happen if we tried to draw a district that connected all those college towns?
Let’s do some math and find out.
Let’s start in Radford and work our way east, using the 2020 presidential election as our baseline. Radford is a reliable Democratic city. In 2020, Biden won by a 572-vote margin here. Next we come to Montgomery County. If we were really trying to draw a Democratic-friendly district, we’d want to do some slicing and dicing – for instance, taking the Democratic precincts in Montgomery County (i.e., Blacksburg) and not the Republican ones (i.e., Christiansburg and the more rural parts of the county). I don’t have that kind of software, though. Plus, one of my guiding principles in these mapmaking exercises is to keep localities intact wherever possible. Splitting them up is a gerrymandering specialty and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. So it’s all or nothing. Democrats would be better off if my map only took part of Montgomery County but I’m taking it all. So there.
In Montgomery County, Biden won by a 2,589-vote margin. Add that to Radford and we now have a 3,161-vote margin for Democrats. If you’re a Democratic mapmaker, you’re off to a great start! Join those voters with the Democratic voters in Roanoke and we start to have a blue district, right? Not so fast. Biden had an 11,166-vote margin in Roanoke, but to get to Roanoke we have to go through Roanoke County and Salem – and under my rules we’re taking all of Roanoke County, not just a tiny corridor. In Roanoke County, Donald Trump had a 12,467-vote margin, so the Republican voters in Roanoke County more than cancel out the Democratic voters in the city. And then there’s Salem, which went to Trump by 2,535 votes.
So now where do we stand? If we start by trying to draw Radford, Blacksburg and Roanoke – the three biggest Democratic bastions in this part of Virginia – into the same district, we wind up with a region that in 2020 tilted Republican by 675 votes.
That’s quite competitive, but we’re nowhere close to having enough people for a congressional district. To get to Lexington – another blue island, where Biden won by 885 votes – we have to take in Botetourt County, Rockbridge County and Buena Vista. The Republican margin in Botetourt was 9,309 votes; in Rockbridge, it was 4,002 votes; in Buena Vista, it was 1,038 votes.
If you’re a Democrat, this is starting to look like a losing proposition. We’re now at a Republican margin of 14,139 votes and we’re still not to Charlottesville yet. To get there, we have to take in Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro. Gulp. That’s a lot of Republican voters. Augusta has a Republican margin of 19,874 and Waynesboro has a Republican margin of 546. Staunton is the exception; it went for Biden by 1,286 votes. Add all that together and we now have a Republican margin of 33,273.
But wait! We’re almost there. Once we cross Afton Mountain, our goldmine of Democratic voters awaits!
Yes, in Charlottesville there’s a Democratic margin of 17,602; Albemarle has a Democratic margin of 21,662. That’s a Democratic margin of 39,264 votes, which wipes out our previous Republican margin of 33,273 and creates a district with a Democratic advantage of 5,991 votes.
The problem now is we don’t have enough voters in the district. So far, we’ve just been counting the partisan advantage locality by locality but what really matters is the total number of voters in the district. Right now we’re at 697,557, short of the ideal of 784,672. We’ve also left four localities along the state’s western edge hanging: Alleghany County, Covington, Bath County and Highland County. In theory, they could get added into the 9th District as a long tendril but that’s not exactly the “compact” part of “compact and contiguous.” We really need to add them into this district, and that brings in more Republican voters. Those four localities produce a Republican margin of 5,645 votes. We’ve now cut the district-wide margin to a Democratic advantage of just 346 votes.
We’re also still 60,000 votes short of a full district. We have options on where to go to get them, but they’re all Republican-voting localities. The only exception would involve something the redistricting commission was set up to prevent – gerrymandering. If you’re a Democrat, you’d want to draw a thin line up Interstate 81 through Republican-voting Rockingham County to pick up Harrisonburg – population 51,814, and a Democratic margin of 5,431 voters. If you’re a Republican, well, you probably don’t like this district to begin with, but if you had to live with it, you’d want southern Rockingham with all its Republicans and, oh, sorry about that, Harrisonburg. Or you’d want to add in part of Bedford County. Or, really, any other locality that borders this district, all of which vote overwhelmingly Republican.
Still, this exercise makes a point: It’s possible to draw a district in this part of the state that is both logically shaped (mostly) and quite politically competitive.
The logic part is that this district unites some of the state’s biggest college towns – Radford University, Virginia Tech, Roanoke College, Hollins University, Washington & Lee University, Virginia Military Institute, Mary Baldwin University, the University of Virginia and, depending on how the final lines got drawn, possibly Bridgewater College, James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University would all be in this district. Suddenly Virginia Tech and UVa would share more than an Atlantic Coast Conference affiliation. (The illogical part is crossing the Blue Ridge; I should point out that a fair number of people in Lynchburg and Amherst County have objected to being in districts that are mostly east of the Blue Ridge.)
The competitive part is in the numbers I just laid out. Before I added those final 60,000 or so voters, we had a Democratic margin of 346. Here’s some context: Even if that final batch of voters broke 2-to-1 Republican, that would be a Republican margin of roughly 20,000 votes. For context, when Good won the 5th District race with 52% of the vote, he had a margin of 20,673 votes. The closest congressional race in Virginia last time was in the 7th District, where Democrat Abigail Spanberger won by 8,270 votes.
If you want to see more competitive districts – again, not necessarily a worthy goal – this would be a good one to draw. And it makes geographic and cultural sense (mostly). But at what cost? As I’ve pointed out before, the 9th District has to expand, no matter what. If we start by shrinking the 9th – taking away the New River Valley, Salem, part of Roanoke County, Alleghany County and Covington and adding them to this new Radford-to-Charlottesville district – then we force the 9th to be drawn farther east into Southside. Is that a good idea? Or is it better to keep the 9th completely west of the Blue Ridge, which would also enable the commission to draw the 5th as a purely Southside-based district? That purely Southside-based district wouldn’t have Charlottesville and Albemarle – so those Democratic voters might wind up getting attached to, well, who knows? They might be happy to be out of the 5th, and might be thrilled to get attached to Democratic voters around Richmond or the outskirts of Northern Virginia, but not so happy if they’re part of a district that includes a lot of Republican voters in the Shenandoah Valley. I haven’t tried to draw those maps – my concern has just been Southwest and Southside.
Anyway, the point here is to show all the options. Some goals are quite attainable – compact districts for the 9th in Southwest and the 5th in Southside. Other goals are quite attainable, too, if we’re prepared to live with the trade-offs. A district that puts the three overlapping metros of New River, Roanoke and Lynchburg in a single district, or a district that connects all the college towns both make a lot of sense but the inevitable consequence of forcing the 9th District so far into Southside may not.
Other goals aren’t as attainable, such as trying to draw a Democratic district in this part of Virginia. Democratic voters living in places surrounded by lots of Republicans will either just have to get used to losing, or figure out how to persuade their neighbors to change their minds. The Republican voters in Arlington and Alexandria feel their pain.
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.