I had high hopes that once redistricting went to the Virginia Supreme Court we’d get some reasonable maps.
I had even higher hopes when the court appointed Sean Trende as one of its two special masters; he’s one of the most insightful political analysts in the land, as far as I’m concerned. Here’s some evidence to support that: I had no idea what his political leanings were until he showed up on the Republican list as a potential nominee.
I had still higher hopes when I read the 53-page explanation of their work that Trende and fellow special master Bernard Grofman filed with the Virginia Supreme Court on Wednesday. It said all the right things, at least as far as Southwest and Southside were concerned.
They declared that in drawing maps “we were mindful of the Blue Ridge Mountains as an important geographic divider in Virginia history” and vowed that districts should not cross the mountains unless absolutely necessary.
They said they would try to draw districts that allow a representative “to travel between any two points within a district without leaving the district.” In other words, no weirdly shaped districts.
Further they said they would try to “nest” their districts. In other words, to the extent possible, they’d draw congressional districts first, then try to draw state Senate districts that stayed entirely within those boundaries, and then draw House of Delegates districts out of those Senate districts. Imagine the districts as a series of matryoshka dolls. How perfectly logical!
Finally, they said they would pay no attention to where incumbents live. “We therefore maintained ignorance about the residences of incumbents,” the special masters wrote. “Even as we submit these plans to the Court, we do not know which incumbents have been placed in districts with other incumbents, with one exception described below. We plan on maintaining that ignorance until the maps are finally approved, unless otherwise instructed by the Court.”
This all sounds perfect, right?
So why then are some of these districts such a mess?
The proposed congressional districts on this side of the state seem pretty reasonable. They’re not how I’d have drawn them but they are, for the most part, geographically coherent. (You can find close-ups of all these maps through the links listed here.)
Democrats in Charlottesville won’t like how they’re still stuck in the mostly rural – and Republican – 5th District in Southside when they wanted to be joined up with fellow Democrats in Richmond. And Democrats in Albemarle County won’t like how their county gets split, which further dilutes the Democratic voting power of that blue county. On the other hand, the proposed 5th District is much more coherent than the current map, especially with Lynchburg and the Forest area of Bedford County added in.
The most objectionable part of the congressional maps on this side of the state is how the Roanoke Valley gets split between districts, with Salem, Roanoke and part of Roanoke County going into a 6th District that stretches to Winchester and the rest of Roanoke County going into a 9th District that runs to the Cumberland Gap. This is a function of how the mapmakers did their work. They started in Winchester and worked south. If they’d started in Southwest and worked east, they could have figured out how to put the whole Roanoke Valley into the 9th District. The mathematical problem: One of those districts will have to cross the Blue Ridge to pick up enough people, and the mapmakers decided that made more sense along the mountains in Southwest than along Interstate 66 in the northern valley.
The bottom line: Two Republican incumbents – Morgan Griffith of Salem and Ben Cline of Botetourt County – wind up in the same 6th District, while the 9th has no incumbent. If we’re not paying attention to where incumbents live, that’s neither here nor there, but splitting the largest metro area west of Richmond seems decidedly confusing for the people who live there. On the other hand, the Roanoke Valley has been split between two congressional districts since 1992 when the 9th first took a piece of Roanoke County, so this split is nothing new. We’d hoped the Roanoke Valley would stay intact wherever it went but, as the Rolling Stones like to remind us, you can’t always get what you want. Maybe these maps aren’t worth arguing about. Griffith could still represent the 9th if voters wanted; there’s no requirement that a congressman actually live in the district – he got elected the first time when Salem was outside the district.
This split of the Roanoke Valley is just a harbinger of things to come in the General Assembly maps. That’s where the real mess is, and it’s such a big mess I hardly know where to begin. Let’s start with the state Senate, since there are fewer seats to deal with.
Once again we see the Roanoke Valley split up, and in some incomprehensible ways.
Proposed District 3 runs from Staunton and Waynesboro south to parts of Roanoke County. From a distance, this seems a logical north-south district along Interstate 81. It’s when we get more granular that we see some absurdities. If you live in the Bonsack, Hollins or Northside parts of Roanoke County, that means your legislator wouldn’t be John Edwards, D-Roanoke, or David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County (more on them to come); it might be somebody an hour and a half away. Politically, the weight of this district is going to be farther north.
Proposed District 4 covers Roanoke, Salem and the rest of Roanoke County – all perfectly natural – along with a big chunk of Montgomery County. Democrats had been advocating for a district that united Democratic-voting Roanoke with Democratic-voting Blacksburg but they only get half of that. This district would stop just before it got to Blacksburg, and would lean Republican (which would benefit Suetterlein in a face-off against Edwards). Again, we shouldn’t consider politics here, but the point isn’t about pairing incumbents, it’s that both the Roanoke Valley and the New River Valley get split, and for no good reason. Some in Montgomery had advocated for the county to stay whole, the way it was in years past. Instead, Montgomery County gets split again. Blacksburg would wind up in a district – Proposed District 5 – that would run all the way to Tazewell County. Is there no way to keep both the Roanoke Valley and the New River Valley intact (in separate districts)? Yes, but that’s not the way these maps are drawn. The effect here is to diminish the voting power of the second and third largest localities (Montgomery County and Roanoke County) on this side of the state. You can certainly argue that they’re diminished now under the current map but we had hoped for improvements, right? Is it any consolation that neither part gets what it wants? Democrats don’t get that Roanoke/Blacksburg/Radford trifecta, but Republicans don’t get a wholly Roanoke Valley district either, not with part of Roanoke County carved off and given away to Staunton and Waynesboro, a heretofore unrecognized kinship between Bonsack and Basic City.
Wythe County also gets split, with half of the county added to a district that runs east – across the mountains! – to Franklin County. Here’s one way to look at that: State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, is almost a neighbor to Wythe County, but his proximity would mean nothing. Wythe’s new incumbent would be Republican Bill Stanley, way over in Franklin County.
The House of Delegates districts are even more egregious – and once again take a chainsaw to Roanoke County. Eastern Roanoke County would get attached to Franklin County; that’s where the political weight would be. Southwest Roanoke County, Northside and part of Hollins would get attached to Salem and parts of Roanoke city. The rest of Roanoke County – Catawba, Glenvar, Bent Mountain – would join a district that would include much of Montgomery County (including Blacksburg but not Christiansburg). Come January, the first and last of those would have no incumbent – Joe McNamara lives in that Salem-Southwest-Northside-Grandin district – but there would be opportunities for other candidates in those other two districts. The odds are, though, those candidates wouldn’t come from Roanoke County, just given where the votes in those districts would be. (Observation: Under this map, Charles Poindexter of Rocky Mount, ousted in a Republican primary this year, could make a comeback.)
In fact, under this map, it’s possible that Roanoke County would wind up with no legislators at all – if McNamara ever left office, it’s possible his successor might come from Salem or even Roanoke. On the other hand, Montgomery County come January will have no legislators under the current maps – but under these, it’s more likely that someone from Montgomery could get elected. Historically speaking, what we’re looking at here is the likely transfer of legislative power from the Roanoke Valley to the New River Valley.
Now, it’s not my place to adjudicate those kinds of power transfers, and somebody’s destined to lose out in a game of political musical chairs when this side of the state has to lose seats, but I will ask: Is it really so necessary to chop up these localities? The special masters say they want to keep locality-splitting to a minimum but they didn’t here. It’s possible to design districts that split fewer localities; they just made other choices. And some of those choices are downright weird: They’d put the two nearby college towns of Blacksburg and Radford in separate House districts. Is that really necessary? Must Bonsack and Hollins really be drawn in a state Senate district that goes all the way to Staunton and Waynesboro? Must Blacksburg really be in a Senate district that goes all the way to the coalfields? Must Wythe County be cleaved in two with part of it tossed over the mountains like a watermelon rind flung over the fence?
Other districts make a lot of sense. Lynchburg stays whole, in both the House and state Senate, something it’s not now. Southside looks pretty reasonable, too, although the special masters could have drawn a district that united Danville and Martinsville in a House district with a nearly even racial split. They did not. I have to wonder if that will be the basis for a lawsuit – they could have maximized minority voting power, but chose not to. Not my area of expertise. But this is: The proposed districts in the Roanoke and New River valleys are a royal mess.