Here's how the Virginia Public Access Project assess the proposed congressional districts, based on past election returns. Map courtesy of VPAP.

As the holidays approach, there is one question that looms over all others. It’s not what Santa Claus will do but what the Virginia Supreme Court will do.

As in, what, if anything, it will do about the redistricting maps the two court-appointed “special masters” have drawn. The court basically has three options:

  1. It could order a lot of changes.
  2. It could order a few changes.
  3. It could do nothing and ratify the maps as currently drawn.

Nobody other than the seven justices knows (and they may not yet know themselves), but there are a lot of people who would not be surprised if the court does nothing at all. It’s easy to see the justices saying: “Hey, we didn’t want this job in the first place. We did our part: We appointed two respected special masters who were working for us and not some political party, they used logical methods to come up with their maps and we’re not going to tinker with them. We see no legal failings in what they’ve done; just because somebody doesn’t think Vinton ought to be drawn into the same state Senate district as Waynesboro isn’t reason enough to start tinkering, because once we start tinkering in one place, we’ll wind up tinkering all over the state. Nope. Not doing that. We’re done.”

Of course, they’d dress that up in more solemn language, but you get the idea.

Perhaps the threshold question is whether there are any legal failings in these maps. If so, it would be in the way the special masters drew districts with significant minority populations. Did it draw enough Black majority districts and Black “ability-to-elect” districts, as the legal language describes districts where the Black population falls just short of a majority? Some don’t think so. Right now there are 11 Black majority districts in the 140-member General Assembly; these maps would create just seven. Some independently drawn maps showed how it was possible to draw as many as 16. The special masters – Bernard Grofman nominated by Democrats, Sean Trende nominated by Republicans – say they were more mindful of geography than race. “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 write in their explanation of the maps. “Despite these strictures, we believe we have drawn more districts where minority groups will be empowered to elect their candidate of choice than exist under the current maps.” That’s because they also counted districts where other minorities have a significant population – notably Asians and Latinos in Northern Virginia, for instance. Still, some critics still don’t think these maps are sufficiently empowering of minority voters.

There’s a whole body of law concerning redistricting and minority representation, and I’m neither a lawyer nor have I ever played one on TV. So I don’t know. I just know that if the court does order any changes in these maps, that likely will be the reason – because that would involve a solid legal rationale, and not some artistic judgment about whether the lines in some places make sense. Of note: While the question of Black majority and Black ability-to-elect districts is mostly confined to the eastern part of the state, there is one place in Southside where the mapmakers could have drawn a district that would have been about half white, half Black. That would have been if they’d drawn a House of Delegates district that united Martinsville and Danville – so if there are chinks in the legal armor here, one of them will be there.

That said, the court has invited public comment and the public has not been shy about commenting. In one of the virtual public hearings, one man from Louisa County complained that he would be deprived of all the legislators he had voted for. That’s a hazard of the special masters’ approach, which was to ignore where incumbents live. So should we draw maps with incumbents in mind or not? This is one of the trade-offs. I haven’t done an exhaustive search but Louisa isn’t alone in this regard. Voters in Blacksburg would also find themselves with all new representatives – maybe. Right now, they’re represented by Republican Morgan Griffith of Salem in the U.S. House, Democrat John Edwards of Roanoke in the state Senate, and Democrat Chris Hurst of Radford – soon to be Republican Jason Ballard of Giles County – in the House of Delegates. Under these maps, Blacksburg voters would be in a congressional district with no incumbent (although Griffith could still run), a state Senate district represented by Republican Travis Hackworth of Tazewell County and a House district with no incumbent. There are surely other communities in the same situation.

I’ve read through the comments filed with the court since the maps came out. Some voters say they are quite satisfied. “I think we should congratulate the special masters,” writes Carol Rowan of Salem. “The memo they wrote was like a manual that future commissions could use to do the job.” Some people won’t like some maps, she points out, but that’s what happens sometimes. Overall, she finds them quite logical. “I hope the Virginia Supreme Court is able to accept the maps as presented. I don’t see how anyone could do a better job for the whole state.” If the justices are so inclined, Rowan just wrote part of their order for them. Others, though, find lots of ways they think they could have done a better job.

“PROPOSED MAPS ARE TERRIBLE IN THE WAY THEY SPLIT UP NEIGHBORHOODS,” writes Henry Williams of Alexandria in all caps. “DO NOT DO THAT! START OVER AND BE REASONABLE!”

Clearly, opinions vary.

There also are conflicting opinions about whether incumbents should be protected or not. This seems odd, since the whole point of voters approving a constitutional amendment to take the power of redistricting out of the hands of the majority party in the General Assembly. However, now that people see the results of redistricting that doesn’t take incumbents into account, some don’t like the results – on either side, politically.

Many Republicans in Prince William County have written to lament that they would no longer be in a district represented by Republican Rob Wittman. “Please do not remove Representative Wittman from the county,” writes Scott Flannery. Marcie Grau likewise objects that these maps leave “Prince William with no Republican representation at all.” Others are upset that the maps create more unfavorable districts for the state’s three Democratic women in Congress. “I encourage you to re-examine such glaring missteps, so as to not be misconstrued as misogynistic,” writes Patricia Heidelmark of Chesterfield County. “Abigail Spanberger’s treatment is ugly and disgusting,” writes David Cariens, no address given. Spanberger winds up in a district with a fellow Democrat, while the 7th Congressional District she has represented gets drawn on the edge of Northern Virginia, because that’s where Virginia’s population center is shifting. That new version of the 7th District would be anchored by the aforementioned Prince William County, which now regularly votes Democratic, no doubt to the chagrin of Flannery and Grau. Others in Augusta County write to protest the loss of at least two incumbents – the state Senate map draws Democrat Creigh Deeds of Bath, Republican Emmett Hanger of Augusta County and Republican Mark Obenshain of Rockingham County into the same state Senate district. “You have also given no thought to the loss of institutional wisdom made possible by the current proposals,” writes Judy Wyatt of Augusta County.

So which is it? Do we want mapmakers who pay attention to incumbents or not? If they do, isn’t that part of what gerrymandering is all about?

Wyatt Durrette, who was the Republican candidate for governor in 1985 and is today a prominent attorney in Richmond, writes to the court to urge the justices to hold fast. He points out that the current lines are gerrymandering, so if mapmakers proceed from a blank slate, “it is logical and almost inevitable that a host of incumbents will be paired and/or be removed from their districts.” He goes on to say: “The problem isn’t the drawing of the current map, it is the effect of the prior gerrymandered maps. … Please do not be influenced by the expected effect of past gerrymandering on these new districts. It is worth repeating that no district is ________’s district (fill in an incumbent’s name). They merely serve in office temporarily. Every district belongs to the people who reside in it. This shake-up was entirely expected, and the Special Masters were right to ignore incumbents. There may indeed be good reason to shift some boundaries but effects on current office holders is not one of them.”

Most of those comments deal with the lines in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads, but some do deal with Southwest and Southside Virginia. Here’s a summary:

LYNCHBURG

Several people wrote to the court to praise the mapmakers for keeping Lynchburg intact in all three maps – House of Delegates, state Senate, U.S. House. The city is currently split in the first two, and a Republican map had proposed splitting the city between two congressional districts.“Your bipartisan and amicable work in drawing these fair maps gives me hope for our future,” writes Niro Rasanayagam.

After that, things become more, umm, interesting.

MARTINSVILLE AND DANVILLE

Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring write on behalf of the House Democratic caucus to make the case for “drawing together the Southside cities of Danville and Martinsville, as they are likely to have similar interests and issues.” This is a good, neutral way of saying they’d like to see a district created that might go Democratic.

THE NEW RIVER VALLEY

Montgomery County is currently split between three House districts and two state Senate districts. Some had hoped the county would be united. Instead, the proposed maps split it between two House districts and two state Senate districts, just differently shaped from the ones now. Multiple commenters made the case for putting Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Radford in the same district. Some of those may have no political motives at all; they simply don’t want to see the New River Valley sliced up. And it’s unclear what the politics of such a district would be – Blacksburg votes Democratic, Christiansburg votes Republican, while Radford is generally considered Democratic but went Republican this year.

Others, though, clearly have politics on their mind. Filler-Corn and Herring propose “keeping the cities of Blacksburg and Radford together as a community of interest because of the two colleges there (Virginia Tech and Radford College).” Their interest in Southwest Virginia might be more convincing if they got the name of the institution in Radford correct. It’s only been Radford University since 1979. The proposed maps put Blacksburg and Radford in different House districts, which presumably dilutes Democratic strength (although having them in the same district didn’t help Hurst in this year’s election, which he lost). Ironically, even though the maps split them, the district that would include Blacksburg (and stretches to Bent Mountain in Roanoke County) is still rated as competitive.

Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw goes into greater length to make the case why Roanoke and Blacksburg should remain in the same state Senate district – the proposed maps split them. Saslaw, unlike his House counterparts, shows more knowledge of the region with several annotated paragraphs listing all the ways the two communities are united, concluding with “And, don’t forget the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport!” He may well be right but his motives are political: Without Blacksburg, the proposed maps put Edwards into a Republican-leaning district with a Republican incumbent where David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, would have the advantage. Taking out Christiansburg and swapping in Blacksburg, as Saslaw proposes, would change those dynamics. Saslaw is right that his proposed map better reflects the economic realities on the ground, but should the justices be tinkering with the map when they know that also changes the politics? They can deny a certain amount of responsibility for the special masters’ maps but once they start making changes, they own them.

THE 6TH AND 9TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICTS

Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Fairfax County, certainly believes that incumbents should be taken into account. The proposed maps put Salem – and with it, 9th District representative Morgan Griffith – into the 6th District, which already has a representative in the form of Ben Cline. This pairing of two Republicans in the same district creates “an unnecessary primary election between the two when a slight adjustment would allow both to continue representing their current districts,” Davis writes. “I propose returning the City of Salem to the Ninth Congressional District where it currently resides, and offsetting the resulting change in population by shifting the portions of Roanoke County south and east of the City of Roanoke into the Sixth District.”

Donna Lawson of Coeburn makes the same appeal: “As a lifelong resident of Southwest Virginia, I want to continue to see Salem included in my congressional district. With all due respect, expanding the district east into Bedford, but excluding Salem from the 9th district makes no sense. I live in Wise County where we have far more in common with Salem than we do Bedford or Martinsville. So, please reconsider the map and please include Salem within the 9th district.” Salem hasn’t been in the 9th District long – since the last redistricting after the 2010 census – so I surmise that her attachment isn’t really to Salem but to the Republican incumbent who happens to be from Salem.

John Craig of Radford chimes in to say the same thing. “I understand that an argument is made that Salem needs to be lumped in with Roanoke because of some imagined valley commonality. Anyone who lives in the area would quickly contest this myth. These are distinct communities with separate lifestyles and for a large part the economic and employment situations are distinct and unique. The City of Salem and west Roanoke County have far more commonality with Southwest Virginia than … Bedford, which is historically and practically a part of Virginia’s Piedmont region. Please correct this obvious error in the current plan.”

THE 5TH DISTRICT

The most colorful – and anguished – comments come in regard to the 5th Congressional District, which the mapmakers would reshape to remove northern Albemarle County and points north. Those communities would go into the 10th District that would run to Loudoun County.

Some Democratic voters in those areas are thrilled. “We love our new U.S. House District,” writes Florence Keenan of Fauquier County. “Thank you for releasing us from District 5 and placing us in our cohort with Loudoun (District 10?) that shares our watershed (Goose Creek, Potomac and Chesapeake Bay) and values. We’re beginning to feel re-enfranchised.”

Some voters in Loudoun County aren’t nearly so thrilled. “I’m not proud of my ignorance, and I’m working to rectify it,” writes Vladyslav Ovchynnikov of Loudoun County, “but I couldn’t name counties in the proposed district when I first saw the map. I have never been to Rappahanock, Madison, Greene or Orange Counties. I’ve only been to Albemarle once – as a tourist. I struggle to understand what logic puts us in one district. I don’t know or understand the needs and concerns of people in these counties, and I doubt that they know or understand my needs and concerns. If we are represented by a single Congressperson, she or he will struggle to balance our interests, and one part will always feel unheard and ignored. Also, why is Albemarle split and separated from Charlottesville? I’m certain they would much rather stay a part of their region than be joined with Northern Virginia.”

Umm, actually the Democrats in northern Albemarle seem delighted to be in that district – and out of the Republican-leaning 5th. The comment file is full of comments from voters – no doubt Democrats – in Charlottesville and southern Albemarle who wish they could get out of the 5th, too. “To separate us politically makes no sense as we need representatives to serve our common interests,” writes former Charlottesville Mayor Kay Slaughter. “Ours is an important educational, medical, economic hub in the Central Piedmont and should not be appended to a largely Southside rural community.” Several commenters propose adding Fluvanna, Louisa and Goochland counties to the 5th District in return for Charlottesville and southern Albemarle going into the 10th District. Ann Mallek of Crozet quite succinctly sums up a non-political reason why Charlottesville should be in the 10th and not the 5th: “Our citizenry travels to DC much more for work and for recreation than to Lynchburg,” she writes.

Others, though, frame things more politically. George Brandon of McLean takes pity on Charlottesville voters and writes: “I would like the Special Masters to shift the voters in Charlottesville City from the proposed CD5 to the proposed CD10. I think it unfair to the Democrats in this college town to be stranded in a Republican congressional district.” That, of course, raises the question of whether a Charlottesville-to-Leesburg congressional district would be fair to the rural Republicans in Greene, Madison and Rappahannock, who would be equally stranded in a Democratic congressional district as so much connecting tissue.

And then there’s Diana Mead, in the North Garden community in southern Albemarle. She writes the court: “It would be such a relief NOT to live in a district where the most extreme candidate can simply primary himself into a guaranteed win, and then disregard, to the extent possible, his constituents with dissenting views. … Fanatical elected representatives have no interest in working across the aisle. We have suffered through so many terrible congressmen, culminating with Bob Good, a Bible-thumping, race-baiting, homophobic, fascistic Neanderthal, who would undoubtedly love to establish a Christian theocracy ruled by President-for-Life Donald Trump. Please have mercy on us.”

Good is a lightning rod for some in western Chesterfield County who would get moved into the 5th. One of those is Nancy Davies who writes: “As both a female and a suburbanite, I will not be fairly and equally represented by the most recent proposed map. Bob Good is not remotely representative of my interests. Please reconsider, especially along gender lines. So far, what the latest group has done to women and suburban representation is discouraging.” Once again, we see voters asking the court to take into account likely political outcomes when drawing the maps.

For what it’s worth, in October I drew a proposed 5th District map that didn’t involve either Charlottesville or the Richmond suburbs. As Bob Dylan sang on “Highway 61 Revisited,” yes, it can be very easily done. I also drew a proposed 9th District that took in all of Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem, although my proposed version also brought in Botetourt County – and therefore would have put Griffith and Cline in the same district, just from a different direction.

Holly Wyatt Herman of Augusta County pinpoints the problem with many of these maps: The mapmakers started in Winchester and worked their way south. That’s why her county gets split between two state Senate districts, which she doesn’t like. That’s why the Roanoke Valley gets split between two congressional districts. Those places are simply where the mapmakers ran out of numbers. “Had the maps started at another area of the state rather than the Winchester corner, the maps might look differently and not split where they do,” she writes. “I would suggest picking a few different corners or middle of the state to develop maps without nesting parameters and see if they can better reflect communities of interest.”

She’s right. If I’d been drawing the maps, I’d have started by drawing the Black majority districts first to satisfy whatever the law says there. For the rest of Virginia, I’d have started in Southwest and worked my way west. That way I could have made sure the Roanoke Valley stayed intact in a single congressional district. Of course, that would have meant I’d have run out of numbers in somebody else’s community and they’d be complaining right now about how inelegant my map was. The court didn’t ask me, though, it asked Grofman and Trende. The court is taking comments up until 1 p.m. today. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

So if those casinos in Bristol and Danville were open right now, how would you be betting on what the court does here?

Dwayne Yancey

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