The redistricting commission did not fail. It certainly failed to agree on maps, although no one should be surprised that a panel composed of equal numbers of partisans could not do so. It did succeed, though, in surfacing the maps each party prefers, which allowed the public to do something they’d never been able to do before – comment on them. Now the duty of drawing the maps belongs to the Virginia Supreme Court, whose processes are certainly opaque in some ways but, once again, the public is able to comment on the maps they prefer – and the public is doing so.
We have no idea if this will do any good, but it seems far preferable than what we had in the past, when redistricting was the sole province of the majority party in the General Assembly and it didn’t matter which party was in control, each one had the same goal – to draw lines that helped them and hurt the other side.
So far, the public has filed 450 pages worth of comments. They generally fall into two broad categories:
A. People don’t want to see their localities split between districts, except in Smyth County, where officials do want their county split between districts.
B. The preferred configuration of districts where localities must be combined.
The notion of not splitting localities might not seem very controversial but it is, because in some cases keeping a locality whole might benefit one party while splitting it might benefit another. Nor are the outcomes consistent. In some cases, Democrats might benefit from leaving a locality intact while Republicans would benefit from seeing it chopped up and the pieces attached to Republican-voting neighbors. In other cases, Republicans would benefit from leaving a locality whole and Democrats would benefit from some slicing and dicing.
Many redistricting conflicts deal with how many Black-majority districts – or near Black-majority districts – can or should be drawn between Richmond and Hampton Roads. It would be wrong to assume, though, that because Southwest and Southside vote overwhelmingly Republican – except in a few places – that there are no redistricting controversies on this side of the state. Here are five the Supreme Court will have to deal with:
- Should Martinsville and Danville be in the same House of Delegates district or separate ones? This may be the most contentious – and therefore the most fascinating – issue raised so far for our part of the state. Historically, Martinsville and Danville have been in separate House districts so the idea of combining them is new.
When the redistricting commission held a public hearing for Southside in October, many speakers insisted that’s how they should stay on the theory that the two cities are quite different. “We feel that this [combining the two] would be a negative impact on our community,” said Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson. Martinsville City Council member Danny Turner said that “I think Danville and Martinsville are different, totally different,” saying there was “very little interaction between the citizens.” Both Laws and Turner wanted Martinsville drawn with Patrick County and/or Franklin County.
In the comments before the court, we once again see objections to combining Martinsville and Danville. Chatham Mayor Will Pace has filed comments on how he’d like to see the lines for Pittsylvania County drawn. He adds: “Finally, Danville City and Martinsville City should NOT be placed in the same House of Delegates district as these cities and their surrounding areas are NOT communities of interest. Putting the cities of Danville and Martinsville in the same House of Delegates district will split their respective communities of interest and will create a Gerrymandered House District.”
So with all these objections to a combined Martinsville-Danville district, who is actually proposing such a thing? Brady Walker of Dry Fork is. He makes this case: “Martinsville and Danville are connected via Route 58, share Sovah Health’s hospital system, and are the region’s economic hubs outside of Lynchburg, Roanoke, and Greensboro, NC. Martinsville and Danville represent an area of that state that has suffered significantly from economic and population decline since the textile and tobacco industries became unsustainable. Now, as both cities pivot towards an economy with an emphasis on technology and manufacturing, Martinsville faces the incredibly difficult task of reverting from an independent city to a town. Since 1995, three independent cities, including our neighbor South Boston, have reverted to towns. Though these reversions have been successful in the long term, I feel as though it’s important to anchor Martinsville to Danville with a single delegate, to ensure economic stability and growth going forward.”
Here, though, is the real key: “These two cities also have similar racial demographics, including a large minority population. According to statistics provided by the US 2020 Census, Martinsville has a ‘Black alone or in combination’ population of 48.2%. Danville has a ‘Black alone or in combination’ population of 53.4%.” Walker says he was able to draw a Martinsville-Danville district that would be 48.91% minority and 51.09% white. “Though this does not constitute a minority-majority district, it would ensure that minorities would be able to elect a delegate of their choosing,” Walker writes. “The Readjuster Party, a biracial coalition that formed following the Reconstruction Era, had significant success in Virginia. Danville was able to elect a majority Black council and hired an integrated police force due to expanded voting access from actions taken by the Readjuster Party. Currently, Martinsville has two minority city council members while Danville has five. Historical legacy and current racial demographics must be factors in drawing a district that gives a voice to residents of the Southside.”
The Readjusters! This short-lived – and consequential – party makes a rhetorical comeback! In any case, here’s the political nub: It’s possible to draw a potentially Democratic district in the heart of otherwise Republican Southside. Should the court be taking such politics into account? Ideally not, right? But it probably does need to take race into account to satisfy various court rulings. If it’s possible to draw a district that’s almost evenly split between Black and white and the court instead draws two overwhelmingly white districts, is that going to stand up in federal court? Interestingly, the original Democratic maps proposed to the commission never drew this district, although some other left-leaning interest groups did. How the court resolves this Martinsville-Danville question will be fascinating (and potentially grounds for a lawsuit in the federal system). Here’s a case where using a cartographical scalpel through Henry and Pittsylvania counties to connect Martinsville and Danville would benefit Democrats. But then there’s a case where keeping a locality whole might help Democrats:
2. Should Lynchburg stay whole? We heard this in comments before the redistricting commission. The city is currently split between two House of Delegates districts and two state Senate districts. Those lines don’t align, either, so the city winds up with four different ballots to handle all the configurations. We once again see calls to keep Lynchburg united. Niro Rasanayagam writes: “Please remember to keep the City of Lynchburg as ONE community of interest within one State House district, one State Senate district, and ONE Congressional House district when drawing maps.” So does Neal Summerlin: “The current map is a historical anomaly. I ask that you restore Lynchburg as a single community of interest.” So does Carla Heath: Lynchburg “will be best served if it is represented in the G.A. by a single delegate and single senator. To excise a few census tracts and add them to an adjacent county which does NOT offer the above listed services to Lynchburg residents will not serve those residents well and, furthermore, will dilute their voices in the G.A.” And Richard Potekhen: “I urge you not to split the city of Lynchburg when redistricting.”
You get the idea. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Lynchburg has been trending from Republican red to something closer to purple. In his 2018 U.S. Senate race, Tim Kaine took 50.6% in Lynchburg. In 2020, Mark Warner took 56% in Lynchburg in his Senate race. Joe Biden carried the city as well – with 49.6% to Donald Trump’s 47% – to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in the Hill City since Harry Truman in 1948. Lynchburg was back in the Republican column this fall, with Glenn Youngkin taking just under 55%. But the point is, Lynchburg seems to be competitive. Right now, all its legislators are Republicans who get the benefit of Republican voters in conservative neighboring counties. But what if one of them had to run in an all-Lynchburg district? That’s why some Republicans are concerned that Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, might be vulnerable under new maps, as Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt reported recently.
3. How many ways should Albemarle County be split? Albemarle isn’t in Southside but the way it’s split, or not split, will have some impact on how districts in Southside, and even across the Blue Ridge in the Shenandoah Valley, are drawn. Given its size, Albemarle will have to be split into multiple House districts, but how?
Former Albemarle County supervisor Sally Thomas writes the court to explain the problem: “Please observe the very obvious community of interest that holds together Charlottesville and Albemarle. For some years, this community has been divided in non-sensical ways. On a flat piece of paper, it may seem that we are close to Augusta County, but that mountain is a serious divide that has stood for generations. In the last election, Albemarle County had to produce 9 distinct versions of ballots in order to let voters cast correct ballots, due to House of Delegate boundaries’ meandering across the countryside. With a concern for voters’ sanity and their interest in participating, please keep us together.”
Tim Hickey of Albemarle writes to propose a solution: “Please include us in only 2 House Districts. One District should be Charlottesville and some portion of Albemarle. The second District should be the rest of Albemarle and our neighbor to the south, Nelson County.”
Sounds reasonable, right? It is. It’s also political. Albemarle is currently split four ways because it votes Democratic and Republicans drew the map – so splitting up Democratic localities and assigning pieces here and there is the classic way to minimize their voting power. One piece of Albemarle is connected to a district across the mountains in Augusta and Rockingham counties, all the way to the West Virginia line. Another piece is also drawn across the mountains to another part of Rockingham County. A third is drawn south of Lynchburg into Campbell County. Only one district, the one which takes in heavily Democratic Charlottesville, is geographically coherent.
Those with sharp eyes will recognize Hickey as the Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates in 2019 against Republican Matt Farris of Campbell County. Hickey carried his piece of Albemarle easily but lost badly to Farris in the other counties. Here’s another case where adopting the Republican principle of keeping a community whole would benefit Democrats (but also benefit Republicans in those other counties by making those districts even more Republican)
4. How should Southwest Virginia districts be drawn? These would seem the least political decisions of all because every locality west of Radford votes Republican – and does so by thundering margins. However, Southwest Virginia is going to lose seats due to population losses, so how those districts get drawn may help determine who loses out in this game of legislative musical chairs. And then there are those who have mapping preferences for nonpolitical reasons. Smyth County, for instance, wants to be split between two House districts. The town managers in Chilhowie, Saltville and Marion joined with the county administrator in Smyth County to write a joint letter to appeal for the county to remain split between two House districts. They wrote that they are “strongly advocating that … you do not significantly alter the current dynamic of Smyth County being served by both Delegate Israel O’Quinn and Delegate Jeff Campbell.”
Campbell is from Marion. If all of Smyth were put in a district further south, he’d be in the same district as one represented by O’Quinn or possibly Will Wampler, R-Abingdon. This is basically a plea to preserve Campbell’s district, although the letter-writers frame this in higher-minded language, which could well be true: “Synergies are not born through county lines; they are developed through complementary efforts over time. Having a House Delegate that transcends county lines and supports those endeavors has proven time and again to be advantageous to Smyth County citizens. Having a House Delegate serving the eastern portion of the county, promoting synergies with Wythe County yet always in concert with the western Delegate, augments the efforts of both and serves the citizens of Smyth County and its towns very well.” Bristol city councilman Bill Hartley also writes to make the same case, just from a Bristol point of view – they’re all along Interstate 81 and all served by Virginia Highlands Community College.
Other requests seem less political and more practical. Grayson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Brandon Boyles asks that “Grayson County, Galax City and the entire Mount Rogers Planning District be kept together within two House of Delegates districts.” (Seems reasonable to me.) Bristol schools Superintendent Keith Perrigan writes to say that Russell County should not be grouped with Bristol and Washington County in a House district because Russell “does not share many natural relationships with Washington County and especially not with Bristol. … Russell County is a much more natural fit with Tazewell County, Buchanan County, etc.” (Again, seems reasonable to me.) Farther north, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, writes to list the precincts in Roanoke he feels should be in the district he represents. (The list is very close to the ones he has now.)
5. How many ways should Montgomery County be split among House districts? 6. And should it be split at all among state Senate districts? 7. And how should the Senate districts in the Roanoke and New River valleys be drawn? Curiously, no one has commented to the Supreme Court on these three related questions, although people did comment to the redistricting commission. Come January, Montgomery County will have not a single one of its residents sitting in the General Assembly, making it the largest locality in the state with that distinction. The county is split among three House districts, which will be represented by Jason Ballard, R-Giles County; Marie March, R-Floyd County; and Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County. It’s split between two Senate districts, represented by David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, and John Edwards, D-Roanoke. There are two questions here. One is how House districts should be drawn, the other how state Senate districts should be drawn.
Montgomery County is too big to be in a single House district. It has a population of 99,721; the ideal size for a House district under the new census is 84,545 so Montgomery will have to be split in two, but how? Should that be most of Montgomery in one district and a little piece in another? Or some other configuration? Or should it stay split into three pieces?
The way the state Senate districts are drawn is particularly controversial as they relate to Montgomery County, and also the Roanoke Valley. If you believe districts should be compact and contiguous, then Roanoke should be in a Senate district with Salem and as much of Roanoke County as possible. That would also make the district lean Republican. That would allow Montgomery County to stay whole, connected to neighboring localities – and, no matter who those neighbors are, the result would be another Republican district. If you believe that districts should represent communities of interest, then an argument can be made that one community of interest is ideological and Democratic-voting Roanoke should be connected with Democratic-voting Blacksburg and Radford, even if that means carving a narrow path through Republican sections of Roanoke County and Montgomery County. Here’s a case where keeping communities whole benefits Republicans, splitting them benefits Democrats — more like Martinsville and Danville and quite unlike the examples from Lynchburg and Albemarle County.
Somehow the court will have to resolve all these questions and, by doing so, will indirectly be making some political decisions, whether it wants to or not.
Tomorrow I’ll look at the comments the court is getting about congressional districts. They’re fun, too.