Soukarya Samanta has proposed this congressional map. They reflect the state's political leanings more accurately than current ones but they're not always geographically coherent.

Now that redistricting is before the Virginia Supreme Court, Kristin Peckman of Roanoke County writes to the justices to complain that neither the congressional district she lives in (the 9th, represented by Morgan Griffith, R-Salem) or the House of Delegates district she lives in (the 17th, represented by Chris Head, R-Botetourt County) is competitive: “Both of the above districts have had no competition in at least 20 years. Even when a Democrat dared to run, he lost by a large margin. Please make these two districts more competitive!”

She’s not alone. In the 1,205 pages of comments filed with the court are many from Virginians who ask the court to draw more competitive districts, at both the state and federal level. (You can see the proposed maps now before the court here.)

This raises a fundamental question: Should the court even consider competitiveness when drawing districts? Or should it simply focus on drawing districts that are compact, contiguous and otherwise coherent? 

Voters clearly don’t like gerrymandering – politicians drawing districts to advantage their party and disadvantage the other party – otherwise they wouldn’t have approved the constitutional amendment that took the process out of the hands of the majority party in the General Assembly and set up the current system.

However, drawing districts that are compact, contiguous and coherent and drawing districts that are competitive are two goals that are often in conflict with one another. And, because of how geographically polarized we’ve become as a society – what author Bill Bishop calls “The Big Sort” in his book by the same name – there are large parts of the state where it’s simply impossible to draw competitive districts.

Unfortunately for Peckman, that’s the case with her request. The 9th Congressional District is not strongly Republican because it’s gerrymandered; it’s strongly Republican because that’s how people there vote. West of Richmond there are just a few blue islands in a great red sea. Two of those are already in the 9th – Blacksburg and Radford. It seems likely that redistricting will add another – Roanoke. But not even that will be enough to alter the basic political dynamics of the 9th District. (Why not? Because bringing Roanoke into the 9th also means bringing in most of Roanoke County, and the Republican margins in Roanoke County erase the Democratic margins in the city.) Even if Eldbridge Gerry himself were brought back to draw districts, it’s simply impossible to draw a district that makes Southwest Virginia even remotely competitive. Sorry. Southwest Virginia will be competitive when voters there want it to be competitive, which is a high-minded way of saying not until a lot of Republican voters decide to start voting Democratic again. Same for Arlington and Alexandria, just on the other end of the political spectrum.

There are some ways to draw a district that puts the Roanoke Valley and even the New River Valley into a competitive district – I laid out a possible map in an earlier column – but the trade-off is to force the 9th District to run all the way from the Cumberland Gap to the outskirts of Richmond. That may seem a good deal for some Democratic partisans but it also sure seems like gerrymandering. 

Peckman’s request for a competitive House of Delegates district runs into the same problem. The only Democratic precincts in the Roanoke Valley are in Roanoke, in the district represented by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. I doubt Peckman wants to make Rasoul’s district less Democratic by moving some of those city precincts into another district. To make Head’s district competitive, you’d have to move so many Democrats out of Rasoul’s district that you might wind up with two Republican legislators instead of one Democrat and one Republican. Some things just can’t be done. 

But what about places where it could be done? Should the Supreme Court justices be concerned about outcomes? If they are, how is that different from gerrymandering – except this might be considered gerrymandering in reverse, intentionally designing districts to be competitive instead of strongly Democratic or Republican? Because of how geographically polarized we are, there are precious few places where a competitive district can be drawn “naturally.” The House of Delegates district currently represented by Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery County, and soon to be represented by Jason Ballard, R-Giles County, is one of those rare creations. It includes Blacksburg and Radford, both very Democratic (although Radford wasn’t this year), and a lot of rural areas that are quite Republican. There’s no way to make that district more Democratic, and as long as Blacksburg and Radford are grouped together (as they should be), that district will be competitive. But there aren’t many places like that, unless you start drawing weirdly shaped districts. Is that acceptable if the result is a more competitive district? 

Don’t get me wrong: We’d be better off as a society if we had more competitive districts. That would push both parties toward the center. When districts become automatic wins for one party or another, then the real contest isn’t in November, it’s the nomination contest, which involves far fewer people and tends to produce nominees much further left or right. The classic example of that is the 5th Congressional District, where Republican Bob Good last year ousted incumbent Denver Riggleman in a nomination contest where the convention was held at Good’s own church. (If you’re a conservative who doesn’t like that example, then the relevant example is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted a more centrist Democrat to win the nomination in a strongly Democratic congressional district in New York.)

Nonetheless, the request for more competitive districts is a common one in the public comments filed with the court. Robert “Buzzy” Hofheimer of Virginia Beach writes to the court: “As an active participant in One Virginia 2021, few of us wanted safe districts. We wanted competitive districts. We wanted districts where a ‘Sen Joe Manchin’ type could be competitive in Southwest Virginia and a ‘Sen. Mitt Romney’ type had a chance in Northern Virginia.”

I can’t speak for Northern Virginia, but if the real Joe Manchin can win in West Virginia, there’s no reason why a Joe Manchin knock-off couldn’t win in Southwest Virginia – except that Democrats haven’t nominated many Manchin-like candidates. (Manchin also has the advantage of being a well-known figure in his state, dating back to when West Virginia was more competitive. Even if Virginia Democrats found their own Joe Manchin and nominated him or her in Southwest, that candidate would begin with the handicap of being unknown – which means Republicans would have sport defining him or her simply by party affiliation.) In any case, the problem there isn’t how the lines are drawn. 

One commenter – Zachary Gitlin, no address given – proposes an interesting standard: that to win 50% of the seats in the General Assembly, a party should have to win 50% of the votes statewide. That seems reasonable, right? Except that’s not how things work. The number of seats a party wins in the legislature has little bearing on the number of votes a party gets statewide. Republicans run up big margins in Southwest and Southside and other rural areas. Democrats run up big margins in their strongholds. Party control depends on a handful of competitive seats. Because of the way votes are distributed, it’s entirely possible that one party wins the most number of votes statewide but still doesn’t win a majority in the General Assembly. If you want it otherwise, then we need an entirely new system of government – specifically a “party list” system where each party comes up with a list of candidates, voters vote on which party they want and the number of votes received determines how many people on that list get into the legislature. For instance, in the last Spanish election, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party took 28% of the vote, so was entitled to 28% of the seats; the conservative People’s Party took 21% of the vote, so was entitled to 21% of the seats; and so forth. As the percentages there suggest, those kinds of systems encourage a multi-party system – because even a minor party getting a few percentage points can still win representation in the legislature. That’s why you often hear about coalition governments in other countries, and those governments occasionally collapsing – there are so many parties and none of them has a majority. Say what you will about our system, but in a two-party system there’s always a majority in each chamber (unless there’s a tie). You may have already noticed one weakness of this list system – it doesn’t guarantee representation by geography the way our current one does.

One commenter – Soukarya Samanta, no address given – has taken it upon himself to draw his own maps, using a computer program called Dave’s Redistricting. (It’s fun! Try it yourself.) Samanta’s map (shown above) achieves something close to redistricting Nirvana. With Virginia entitled to 11 congressional seats, “this map produces a 6-5 Biden split, and a 6-5 Youngkin split accurately reflecting partisanship of the state. Minority representation is also significantly improved, and county/city/town splits are minimized.”

Samanta’s proposed Southwest district (he would re-number them, so it would no longer be the 9th District, but let’s leave that aside) is perfectly logical because, as we’ve seen, there’s simply no way to make it competitive. But then the fun begins. Does it make sense to have a district that stretches from Botetourt County to Loudoun County? Not if geography is your pole star – from Daleville to Dulles! – but this would undoubtedly be a more competitive district. All those Democrats in Charlottesville and Albemarle County who don’t want to be party of a Southside district wouldn’t like this map, although by taking out a bunch of rural counties and adding in Lynchburg (which has been evenly split in recent elections), the district might – key word, might – be more competitive. Unfortunately, Samanta doesn’t include analysis of which districts would lean which way and by how much. Still, he shows it’s possible to draw competitive districts – or you can draw geographically coherent districts. But you probably can’t have both.

Dwayne Yancey

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