In 1610, Galileo peered through a telescope and saw something that wasn’t supposed to be: Jupiter had moons.
This contradicted both church doctrine and science as it was known at the time: Both church and the academy held that everything orbited around the Earth. Yet here were four bodies that did not; they orbited around Jupiter.
For this – and for subsequent discoveries that undermined the Earth-centric view of the universe – Galileo faced the Inquisition. Popular legend holds that after Galileo was sentenced, he muttered defiantly: “Yet it moves.”
The story I’m about to relate isn’t quite like that – there’s no Inquisition involved – but it does involve something that’s not supposed to happen, yet is.
Shannon Kelly of The News & Advance in Lynchburg recently had a curious story: There’s one house, and one house only, in Bedford County that’s in the 6th Congressional District. The rest of the county is split between the 9th District (most of the county) and the 5th District (some precincts in the Forest area). But this one house, on Mountain View Road, is drawn into the 6th Congressional District, which otherwise runs north-south from Winchester and Frederick County down to the Roanoke Valley.
That means when the state holds a Republican primary on June 21 to pick the party’s 6th District nominee (incumbent Ben Cline faces a challenge from Merritt Hale), Bedford County will have to open a precinct for just two voters. Those two voters tell the paper they don’t intend to vote – they consider themselves Libertarians – but that doesn’t matter. The law’s the law. There are two voters on the books, so the election machinery must be turned on.
Here’s what the Lynchburg paper reports: “Coding the election on the voting equipment costs $975, plus $90 for each voting machine in the polling place and one at the registrar’s office in case the two voters cast their ballots early. … The cost of having election officials working on Election Day will be about $535. There are other expenses, including the delivery and retrieval of voting equipment, and electoral board costs for conducting the canvass of the election. All in all, this election will cost the county thousands of dollars – for two people.”
That story didn’t go into the details of why this has happened, just that it has, but my curiosity was piqued. The two special masters whom the Virginia Supreme Court commissioned to draw the district lines – one Democrat, one Republican – vowed to split as few precincts as possible. They even tried to split as few localities as possible. They also said they wanted districts to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains as little as possible and, while the mountains don’t feel very high along parts of the Roanoke County-Bedford County line, this little zig-zag along the 6th District line seems to go against that standard. In fact, it goes against all three of those goals. So why would the special masters do this?
It turns out they didn’t, at least not intentionally, but I’m getting ahead of the story.
I started by calling Barbara Gunter, the registrar in Bedford County. She knew, of course, that Bedford was being split between the 5th and 9th districts. That meant new voter registration cards had to be sent out. About a month ago, she started tracing the outline of each district.
Now, when you and I look at the redistricting maps, we see counties and cities, and sometimes we see those counties and cities split with odd-looking wiggle and jiggles. When the redistricting special masters look at the maps, though, what they see are census tracts and census blocks. Think of them as the molecules and atoms of redistricting. That’s how redistricting maps technically are assembled – through census tracts and census blocks. (Census tracts are bigger; each one typically contains several census blocks. You can also think of Matryoshka dolls, those Russian nesting dolls where one fits into another. Every census block is “nested” within a census tract.)
When Gunter’s tracing exercise got to the western part of Bedford County, around Stewartsville, something weird happened. Census tract 312.01, defined as part of the 6th District, slipped out of Roanoke County, crossed the county line into Bedford County and picked up a single house.
“That one really leaped out,” Gunter said. “We had an aha moment.”
So my question: Why did this happen? I was always under the impression that census tracts (and the blocks within them) didn’t cross county lines. Yet clearly this one does. Why?
I contacted the U.S. Census Bureau with a question: How often does this happen?
The answer that came back, courtesy of public affairs specialist Kristina Barrett, was never. More specifically: “Census tracts do not cross county boundaries under any circumstance and that is the same for blocks within tracts.”
And yet, to paraphrase Galileo, this one does. Why?
That simple question set off a lot of internet traffic back and forth between me and the Census Bureau, and sometimes me, the Census Bureau and the Bedford County registrar. Some even included maps.
Here’s the short version: The maps from Bedford County show that the census block lines in that part of the county changed ever so slightly from the 2011 census to the 2021 census – just enough for a Roanoke County-based census block to reach out and grab some pieces of Bedford County, including that house.
This suggests that at some point over the past decade the county line between Bedford County and Roanoke County changed. Such small adjustments aren’t unheard of. The Census Bureau even has a formal Boundary and Annexation Survey process to handle such things. Bedford County, though, says it never requested any boundary change. Roanoke County says it hasn’t either – yet the Census Bureau says the maps supplied by Virginia show a change.
So did Virginia send the Census Bureau a mistake? If so, how did that mistake originate? I don’t have an answer to that. All I know is that the Census Bureau shows a change in the county line that neither Bedford County nor Roanoke County requested, and that change puts these two voters into the 6th District – the only two voters in Bedford County with that distinction.
Now, by this point, you’re probably wondering: Why does this matter? Who cares where these voters vote (other than maybe them?) I’m glad I asked! It matters because these two voters no longer have a secret ballot – one of the most fundamental things in our democracy.
The fact that these voters have said they don’t intend to vote in the June primary doesn’t matter. If they did vote, we’d know exactly how they voted. Come the general election in November, we’ll know exactly how they voted – or didn’t vote – then.
That’s fundamentally wrong.
To make sure people have a secret ballot, Virginia law requires at least 100 registered voters in a precinct in a county (or 500 in a city).
Here we have a split precinct with just two.
This situation isn’t entirely unprecedented. For the past decade, there have been three voters in Montgomery County whose votes are counted separately. Here’s what I wrote for The Roanoke Times when that situation first came to light on the eve of a 2014 special election:
In 1986, Radford annexed part of Montgomery County. Two property owners didn’t want to become part of the city, though, and both sides agreed to let them stay in the county. The result: Two little house-size islands of Montgomery County floating inside Radford. Everybody was happy and life went on — until the state had to redraw legislative districts in 2011.
That year, for the first time, Montgomery County went one way and Radford went another, except … those lines are drawn geographically, so when Radford went into the 38th State Senate District, so did those two Montgomery County houses in the Swiss cheese part of Radford, along with their three voters.
Then-Del. Joseph Yost, R-Giles County, introduced a bill in the 2015 General Assembly to fix this oddity and restore a secret ballot for these three voters. It died in committee. By the time the problem came up again – in the 2019 state Senate elections – Yost was out of office and no one bothered to introduce a bill to address the case of those three voters. The new redistricting fixes that problem but now creates another. The facts are somewhat different but the bottom line is the same: Here are some voters without a secret ballot.
I asked the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares about this. Here’s what his spokesperson, Victoria LaCivita, said: “The Attorney General is committed to free and fair elections conducted pursuant to law. We cannot comment on specific election practices that may or may not be subject to inquiry or investigation.”
That either means something or it doesn’t. It means either the attorney general is looking into this – or it means this is just happy talk to make these questions go away because this problem is too small and too complicated to be bothered with.
Virginia doesn’t have any casinos open yet so we can’t place bets on which one it is, but let’s hope it’s the former.