The proposed congressional districts for Southwest and Southside look pretty logical from a distance. But look closer. Courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.

The proposed congressional redistricting map for Southwest and Southside Virginia isn’t the worst map I’ve seen.

In fact, at first glance, there’s a lot of logic to the general shape of the districts that Republicans have proposed to the Virginia Redistricting Commission. Key words: first glance. Today I will take a closer look at those maps and explain what I think is wrong with them.

The other key phrase there is “that Republicans have proposed.” So far, Democrats haven’t proposed any maps for this side of the state. They’ve been focused on preserving the 3rd and 4th districts in the eastern part of the state as ones that have significant Black populations (those districts are currently represented by Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, and Don McEachin, D-Richmond). Democrats seem to have generally conceded our side of the state. That’s understandable. While there are lots of ways to draw and redraw the 5th, 6th and 9th districts, there is no way to draw any of them as Democratic districts. (I showed last week how it’s theoretically possible to gerrymander a competitive district by connecting college towns from Radford to Charlottesville into a single district, but we all know that’s not going to happen. It would also come at an unacceptable price, by forcing the 9th District to be drawn from the Cumberland Gap to the Richmond suburbs.) So Democrats are essentially telling Republicans: Draw Southwest and Southside however you like.

Just because Republicans may like these maps doesn’t mean we all should. There are some solid nonpartisan reasons to object to these maps. Here’s a big one: Two of the three congressional districts cross mountains when they don’t have to. The Blue Ridge Mountains should be a bright line for cartographers. Districts should only cross them if absolutely necessary to make the numbers work out. These maps have both the 6th and 9th districts crossing mountains unnecessarily.

Here are the most egregious problems I see with this map:

The proposed map of the 9th District. It would give up Martinsville and Henry County on the east, and Craig County, Alleghany County and Covington on the north, then add Roanoke and most of Roanoke County. That would leave Patrick County as the only locality east of the Blue Ridge, Courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.
  1. Why is Patrick County in the 9th District? The 9th District stays entirely west of the mountains except for one place: Patrick County. There’s no reason for this. Yes, Patrick County is in the 9th District now, but that’s still no justification. Patrick County’s orientation is east toward Martinsville and Henry County, not west. Otherwise, let’s give credit where credit is due here. Republican mapmakers actually drew a very logical 9th District, one that’s perhaps even more logical than the district at present. It would absorb Roanoke and almost all of Roanoke County (more on that to come). That’s probably inevitable, partly because the only way to avoid adding Roanoke to the 9th creates weird-looking districts. This map tightens up the 9th’s eastern boundary in some ways. At present, the 9th extends east across the Blue Ridge into Martinsville and part of Henry County. This map returns those to a Southside-based 5th District, where they belong. So why does Patrick County stay in the 9th? Patrick has 17,608 people. Surely we can find 17,608 people somewhere else. Indeed, we can: 
The 6th District (in dark gray) carves out this section of northern Roanoke County. Courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.
  1. And why does the 6th District take a bizarre bite out of Roanoke County?The Republican version of the 6th District has an odd little jag into northern Roanoke County for 6,299 people. We don’t need that. Don’t split Roanoke County; put it all in the 9th. The map also transfers Craig County from the 9th to the 6th. Keeping Craig in the 9th brings us 4,892 people. Add those together and that’s 11,191. That’s not an even swap with Patrick. We’d still need some people from somewhere, but that’s easily done. That’s preferable to having Patrick County as the 9th’s only east-of-the-Blue-Ridge county, and that bizarre bite out of Roanoke County.

All this is just a quibble compared to bigger problems with the 6th District.

The 6th District would lose territory in the northern Shenandoah Valley but add Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Amherst County and . . . Franklin County. Courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.


3. Why is Franklin County in the 6th District? The proposed 6th is pretty logical, too, even though it violates my mountain-crossing rule. West of the Blue Ridge, it would go from that inexplicable Hollins enclave in Roanoke County up Interstate 81 to Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. East of the Blue Ridge, it takes in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, comes down U.S. 29 through Nelson County, Amherst County and Lynchburg, then rounds things off with Bedford County … and Franklin County. This is where things get weird, and unnecessary.

Franklin County might identify itself many ways. Parts of it are oriented toward Martinsville and Henry County. Parts of it are oriented toward the Roanoke Valley. Parts of it aren’t oriented anywhere except to Franklin County. But none of it is culturally identified with the Shenandoah Valley. So why is Franklin in a valley-based 6th District? The only reason I can think of is that this is a small gerrymander. Yes, the mapmakers could have kept northern parts of the Shenandoah Valley in the 6th and left out Franklin and the 6th would be just as Republican. But by adding in Franklin County with its 54,477 people, that makes 54,477 people in Republican-voting counties in the northern Shenandoah Valley available for some other district where they might tip the balance. Sorry, I’m big on districts that are compact and make sense. Putting Franklin County in this configuration of the 6th District doesn’t make sense. It’s got to go – logically into the 5th.

I could also argue that the 6th should stay entirely west of the Blue Ridge and go up and down I-81 but, with the exception of Franklin County, this version of the 6th does make sense. Democrats around Charlottesville and Albemarle won’t like it because they wind up in a Republican district but the reality is that, absent some clever Democratic gerrymandering, they’re probably going to wind up in a Republican district no matter what. As I’ve pointed out before, Democrats have a voter distribution problem. The cluster of Democrats in Charlottesville and Albemarle don’t live close enough to another big cluster of Democrats. Democrats could use smaller majorities in Northern Virginia and bigger minorities in rural Virginia; that would make their mapmaking easier. But I digress. Arguing over where Patrick County and Franklin County should be (ideally in a district with each other!) is nothing compared to this next one. Namely . . .

The map would split Lynchburg between the 6th District (in gray) and the 5th District (the light gray is the part of Lynchburg that would go into the 5th District). Courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.

5. Why is Lynchburg split between the 5th and 6th districts? Most of Lynchburg would remain in the 6th, as it has been since at least the 1940s. However, the southeast corner of the city is carved out and 4,162 people put in the 5th District. Why? It can’t be for some partisan purpose — both these districts will be Republican ones either way. So why slice up Lynchburg that way? This map reaches into Roanoke County for 6,299 people in Hollins then gives away almost that many in Lynchburg. Why not keep both localities intact? You’ll recall that many in Lynchburg, including the mayor, had written the Virginia Redistricting Commission to plead that the city be kept intact in General Assembly districts (it’s currently split multiple ways in both the state Senate and House of Delegates). Surely the same principle would apply to congressional redistricting, as well. Republicans have generally been more keen thanDemocrats to respect city and county lines — state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, has repeatedly proposed legislation on this, only to see it killed by Democrats — so it seems odd that Republicans are the ones wielding the carving knife here. These are mostly Black voters in that section of Lynchburg grafted onto the 5th, so maybe there’s an argument that this helps boost the Black voting strength in the 5th — except a) this map actually splits the Black neighborhood in Lynchburg and b) it’s not as if adding those voters helps the 5th become an “opportunity district.”  The number-crunchers at the Virginia Public Access Project show that, based on the 2016 presidential election, this district would go Republican by 15 percentage points. This slicing-up of Lynchburg is not even the biggest problem with this map. Here’s the biggest:

The 5th District would lose Charlottesville, Albemarle County and points north to Fauquier County. Instead, it would be drawn into the Richmond suburbs. See close-up below. Courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.
Here’s a close-up of how the 5th District (in gray) would extend into parts of Henrico and Chesterfield counties. Courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.


6. Why does the 5thDistrict now go into the Richmond suburbs? Not every gerrymander creates an odd-shaped district like Elbridge Gerry’s infamous salamander district back in the day. The proposed Republican version of the 5th is a skillful gerrymander because to the untrained eye, it looks rather, umm, compact. But it’s still illogical. The current 5th is clearly gerrymandered; it goes from the North Carolina line to within 12 miles of the Maryland line. Democrats in Charlottesville and Albemarle don’t like being a district that’s otherwise anchored in rural (and conservative) Southside. For that matter, those rural (and conservative) voters probably don’t much want Charlottesville and Albemarle and all their liberals in the district. This map solves that problem, and creates another.

Obviously if you take out Charlottesville, Albemarle and all points north you have to pick up population somewhere else. This map picks up those voters in the Richmond suburbs, specifically parts of Chesterfield and Henrico counties. And not insubstantial parts, either. Under this map, Chesterfield County would become the most populous locality in the district, accounting for 32.7% of the population. (I’m indebted once again to the Virginia Public Access Project for these numbers.) Add in the slicing-and-dicing of Henrico County, and 35.9% of the district would be in the Richmond suburbs. This fundamentally changes the character of the 5th District, perhaps more so than adding Roanoke changes the character of the 9th District. At least Roanoke considers itself the gateway to Southwest Virginia, perhaps even the capital of Southwest Virginia. Do suburbanites in Richmond feel any kind of kinship with Southside? Does Midlothian feel some heretofore unrecognized connection with Martinsville? Bon Air with Bassett? Huguenot Road with Horsepasture? This is a mixing-and-matching of the urban crescent and rural Virginia that doesn’t help either place. Here’s who this does help: Republicans who want to vote out Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico County, whose electoral base in the 7th District is in Henrico and Chesterfield. Republicans should find another way to defeat Spanberger. This map makes Republican voters in rural Southside pay the price for those partisan goals. Oh, they’d still get a Republican representative, but that representative would have to divert some of his or her attention from rural concerns to suburban ones. Right now, the 5th District representative is Bob Good of Campbell County, but no member of Congress lasts forever. Under this map, it’s possible – maybe even likely – that Good’s successor would come from the Richmond suburbs, which would leave Southside with no member in Washington. Community leaders in Southside should object to this map for that reason alone.

Strangely, one of the commission members from Southside – Republican Richard Harrell of South Boston – seemed to think this map was OK. He said it was an improvement over the current map with its baffling reach all the way north into Fauquier County, but that’s not really a good comparison. The better comparison is what the 5th District could look like. Two weeks ago, I drew a perfectly logical 5th District that was completely in Southside. Of course, I wasn’t trying to draw members of Congress in or out, either. This map isn’t simply a political gerrymander; it’s yet another way that rural voters are seeing their political power diminished. The rural members of the redistricting commission should be fighting that, not aiding and abetting it.

Dwayne Yancey

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