Updated Dec. 10 11:07 a.m. with more pairings we’ve discovered as we study the maps.
A new set of maps for Virginia’s congressional districts and state legislature drawn by two special masters on behalf of the Virginia Supreme Court would pit several incumbents against each other in Southwest and Southside Virginia.
While the maps wouldn’t significantly alter the overall partisan lean in these particular regions, they would give a slight edge to Democrats in the House of Delegates, the state Senate and Congress overall due to the demographic changes captured in the 2020 census.
The map drawers – Bernard Grofman, a Democrat, and Sean Trende, a Republican – stated in a memo filed with the court Wednesday that the three maps reflect “a true joint effort” between the two. “We agreed on almost all issues initially, and the few issues on which we initially disagreed were resolved by amicable discussion,” they said.
Analysts with the non-partisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the congressional map an A for partisan fairness, and a C for competitiveness and geographic features. The House of Delegates redraw received an A, B and C, while the state Senate map was graded with an B, F and C.
The Supreme Court took over the task of creating new maps because the newly formed Virginia Redistricting Commission in October ran out the clock after hitting a partisan stalemate. The 16-member panel – which included eight Democrats and eight Republicans – had failed to agree on one final set of maps for the state’s legislative chambers and congressional seats to present to the public, essentially kicking the chore up to the court, which then appointed the map drawers.
In their memo, Grofman and Trende argued that they “carefully drew” the new districts to meet constitutional and statutory population requirements. “In doing so, we minimized county and city splits, while respecting natural boundaries and communities of interest to the extent possible.” A community of interest is a neighborhood, community, or group of people who have common policy concerns and would benefit from being maintained in a single district.
They also said that they attempted to draw compact districts, “although equal population requirements and Virginia’s geography often conspired to limit our ability to do so.” The concept of one-person, one-vote dictates that districts should be roughly equal in population, but there are additional factors to be considered, including provisions in the federal Voting Rights Act, district shapes, geographical features, and potential competitiveness.
The special masters noted that they were mindful of these federal and state requirements, and that they worked within the confines of said criteria. “We drew districts that would elect the candidate of choice of a minority group only if the district could be drawn in a compact fashion that did not needlessly split counties,” they said.
Henry Chambers, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond School of Law, said that what the special masters did was fairly typical. “They have drawn maps that are prettier, but it’s not clear that they are any more cohesive than they could be otherwise,” he said. While any major changes shouldn’t be surprising, the map drawers had different options, Chambers said. “Anybody who thinks that these maps have to be drawn this way is wrong. There are plenty of choices that were made with these maps, and those choices were made by the masters, but not by the people of Virginia, and people need to realize that choices are being made,” he said.
One of the most significant moves affecting Southwest Virginia was pairing Reps. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County, in a redrawn 6th congressional district, leaving the 9th – currently held by Griffith – without representation.
Grofman and Trende noted in their memo that the Blue Ridge Mountains served as a natural dividing line for communities of interest, especially given the paucity of easy crossings of those mountains. However, the fact that the population of those counties is about 150,000 short of supporting two full districts, left them no choice but to redraw.
“We observed, however, that the entire Valley of Virginia from Winchester to Roanoke fit almost perfectly within a district bordered by the Blue Ridge, and that the counties west of the Blue Ridge that remained constituted almost all of the counties in Virginia classified as part of Appalachia by the U.S. Government,” they said in their memo. Consequently, they opted to place the counties north of Roanoke and west of the Blue Ridge in a single district representing the Valley of Virginia. They also moved Salem back into the same district as Roanoke, and most of the smaller towns surrounding Roanoke were placed in that district as well. “The 9th District retains most of the panhandle and is composed of almost all of the counties 13 in Virginia classified as Appalachian. A few counties east of the Blue Ridge are added for purposes of population equality,” the wrote.
And because the statutory criteria makes no mention of protecting incumbents, the special masters did not consider how the new map would impact Griffith and Cline, and that it would leave the 9th District without an incumbent. “Even as we submit these plans to the court, we do not know which incumbents have been placed in districts with other incumbents,” Grofman and Trende wrote.
But Chambers, the UR professor, said that incumbent protection is a question worth considering for congressional districts. “Seniority means something in Congress, more than in a state legislature, so you want your congressman to have a shot at a long tenure. But this is not something that special masters told to ignore the issue would think about,” he said. “I hope the folks living in the 9th are not hurt by that.”
Cline has not commented on the special masters’ plan for his district. Griffith in an email Thursday declined to comment. “This is a proposed map with comment periods yet to be held. We will wait and see,” he said.
The 5th District, currently held by Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, got a more robust treatment, leaving it largely intact, with the exception of the area north of Charlottesville, which was drawn into the 10th. To make up for population loss, the new district extends further east, seeping into parts of Chesterfield County in the suburbs of Richmond. It also picks up Lynchburg and Amherst County, which are currently in the 6th. In addition, Bedford County, now split between the 5th and 6th, would be entirely in the new 5th.
The special masters’ vision for a newly drawn state Senate map in the Shenandoah Valley would put Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, in the same district as Sens. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, and Creigh Deeds, a Democrat from Bath County.
State Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, and Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, were also drawn into the same district by moving a large western portion of the city into Newman’s district.
The map creates an incumbent-free district that would run from Vinton in Roanoke County to Staunton and Waynesboro.
The district now represented by state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, would lose counties to his west but would now extend from the western tip of Tazewell County to Blacksburg in the east. That district, though, would include only half of Wythe; the rest of Wythe is joined with a district that extends to Franklin County, home of Republican Bill Stanley.
The rest of Montgomery County, including Christiansburg, which would form the western border of a district that takes in Roanoke City to the east. That district pairs Sens. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, and John Edwards, D-Roanoke, potentially setting up a showdown between the two in the next election.
“The Senate map released last night was disappointing for people in the Roanoke Valley, New River Valley and Wythe County,” Suetterlein said in a phone interview Thursday. “Vinton is the only town in Roanoke County and it is a significant part of the Roanoke Valley, and it makes a lot more sense for them to be in a district with their immediate neighbors in adjacent Roanoke City and the rest of the Roanoke Valley then it does for them to be in a district with Staunton and Waynesboro,” he said, adding that “it’s very important to have compact districts so citizens have greater access to their legislators, and it’s critical that communities of interest stay together.”
House of Delegates
While the state’s westernmost district, represented by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, remains mostly intact, right next door, Del. William Wampler, a Republican from Washington County, is paired with fellow GOP Del. Israel O’Quinn, who resides in the same county. The same happened to two Republican delegates from Botetourt County, Terry Austin and Chris Head. In Southside, Republicans Danny Marshall of Danville and James Edmunds of Halifax County are also drawn into the same district. In the Lynchburg area, Wendell Walker of Lynchburg and Kathy Byron of Campbell County would be in the same district. In the Shenandoah Valley, Republicans Ronnie Campbell of Rockbridge County and John Avoli of Staunton also would be in the same district. Two incoming legislators who have yet to serve would also be paired in the same districts, Republican Wren Williams of Patrick County and Republican Marie March of Floyd County.
In the Roanoke Valley, the special masters carved out a piece of Roanoke, represented by Del. Sam Rasoul, a Democrat, drawing it into the district of Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County. “Roanoke City has a population of about 100,000, and with each district with 85,000, there is a portion of the city that needs to be represented by someone else,” Rasoul said in an interview Thursday. “With my district completely in Roanoke City, the new map continues to keep it whole.” Roanoke has 20 precincts, and to make the numbers work, three would have to be removed, Rasoul said. “I wouldn’t have chosen three different precincts, but it still is a pretty good district as being compact, keeping the racial minorities together and whole,” he said.
The district that currently includes parts of Lynchburg as well as parts of Amherst and Bedford counties was redrawn to make Lynchburg whole, creating a community of interest and an environment that might spell trouble for Del. Wendell Walker, a Republican, as the city has increasingly become more Democratic in recent years. Some local Republicans have expressed concern that Walker might not have the means to beat a well funded Democratic opponent but the incumbent continues to shrug off his critics. “I can’t determine what the courts are going to do,” Walker said when reached by phone Thursday. “I’m fine with whatever happens. Until the ink dries on the paper, I’m not worried about it.”
The court will hear public comment on the maps next Wednesday and Friday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. But Chambers, the constitutional law professor, said that it is unlikely that public opinion will significantly change the maps.
“My guess is nothing will happen,” Chambers said. “The Supreme Court didn’t want to get involved in this anyway. Now that you have a map drawn and blessed by people from both sides of the spectrum, I suspect that unless someone makes a valid argument that any of these districts are unlawful, the court will keep them intact. If the court decides to “tinker with the maps after being drawn by two experts, that would be big,” Chambers said.