Much like a dog with a bone, I’m not ready to stop chewing on the election returns. Here’s the latest thing I’ve found: Election 2022 shows quite clearly that Roanoke’s at-large system for electing city council members makes it almost impossible for minority voters to elect the candidate of their choice to council.
The catch is that the minority voters in question here aren’t a racial minority but an ideological minority: conservatives. Or, more to the point, Republicans.
One of the storylines going into this election was whether Roanoke Republicans would be able to win a seat on the council for the first time since 2000. They did not.
They mounted a spirited campaign, with the first full slate of Republicans in eight years, and they came close. But they didn’t win.
That would seem to be the end of it, right? Roanoke is a reliably Democratic city (the Star City hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since the Ronald Reagan landslide over Walter Mondale in 1984 and it hasn’t gone Republican in a gubernatorial election since John Dalton defeated Henry Howell in 1977). This year it once again elected a Democratic city council. So what?
Here, though, is what was happening beneath the surface of that Democratic sweep.
In the special election to fulfill an unexpired term of one former council member, the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate won an equal number of in-person voting precincts – 10 apiece for Democrat Luke Priddy and Republican Peg McGuire. Precincts aren’t meant to be of equal size, but this still tells us something: Much of the city voted for a Republican. It’s not simply that McGuire took 44% of the vote; it’s that in about half of the city – geographically speaking – she took more than 50%.
She won all but one precinct east of Interstate 581/U.S. 220, the exception being the Grandview precinct that straddles that roadway (and that precinct was very close). East of I-581, her vote share ranged from precisely 50% in the Williamson Road precinct (Priddy took 48.5% with some write-ins accounting for the rest) to 68.9% in East Gate.
Eight of the 10 precincts that McGuire carried were east of I-581/U.S. 220, and in five of them she took more than 60%. That part of the city isn’t just Republican, it’s strongly Republican.
Her other two precincts were Deyerle, in the southwest part of the city, and Summit Hills, along the western border with Salem. We’ll come back to those but let’s focus on those eight precincts she carried east of the major roadway that bisects the Star City: This is the Republican base in an otherwise Democratic city. For those not familiar with Roanoke, we’ll offer some shorthand descriptions: Two of these precincts (South Roanoke and Crystal Spring) are the city’s most affluent. But the other six might alternatively get described as working-class or blue-collar precincts. This reflects a national realignment of the two parties, so we won’t dwell on that today. Instead what we’ll do is explore this point: If Roanoke elected council members via a ward system rather than the present at-large system, the city would surely have some Republican council members and this is where they’d come from.
We see the same thing in Roanoke’s other council election this month – the regular election for three council seats. There were nine candidates running – three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents. Each voter had three votes to spend. In seven precincts (five of them east of 581, plus Deyerle and Summit Hills), the top three vote-getters were all Republicans. In two precincts (South Roanoke and Crystal Spring), two of the top three vote-getters were Republicans. (Joe Cobb was the Democrat that voters there preferred over a third Republican.) Despite Cobb’s appeal in those precincts (he finished first in Crystal Spring, second in South Roanoke), this map generally matches the map we saw in the Priddy-McGuire head-to-head race. In three other precincts (Grandview, Williamson Road, Grandin Court), a Republican (the candidate varied) placed in the top three.
There were also three precincts where the top vote-getters included two Democrats plus one of the independents. All were in Black neighborhoods, and the independent who placed third was a Black candidate.
Taken together, these results show either the beauty or the ugliness of the ward system, depending on your point of view: The candidates who do best are those who can run best citywide. Independent Jamaal Jackson, who placed third in Eureka Park and Peters Creek, might well have won in a district focused solely on northwest Roanoke, but he ran poorly outside of there.
A ward system would enable candidates who are popular in a specific neighborhood – but not necessarily elsewhere – to win. The pro-ward side: The city would get more diverse representation that’s more reflective of the city’s neighborhoods. The anti-ward side: At-large elections force candidates to focus on citywide concerns, and at-large elections haven’t failed to produce diverse results. Roanoke is a majority white city that at present has a majority Black council. In fact, Roanoke has consistently had at least one Black council member, and usually more, since Noel Taylor was elected in 1970. Part of that has to do with the city’s politics. Roanoke, as we’ve seen, trends Democratic, and Black voters are a big part of the Democratic coalition. You’d think that an at-large system in a majority white Southern city would make it difficult for Black candidates to win but that obviously hasn’t been the case in Roanoke. Instead, the candidates who have the hardest time getting elected are white Republicans – who obviously constitute a sizable minority in Roanoke but have no voice on the council and no realistic path to get there.
There’s some irony here. In the early 1990s there was clamor for a ward system in Roanoke. Much of that came from the political left and was opposed by the city’s conservative business leaders. Those business leaders liked the moderating influence of an at-large election and feared a council divided by squabbling parochial interests. In 1997, Roanoke voters rejected a ward system by 54% to 46%. In recent years, though, it’s been left-of-center politicians who have been elected on an at-large basis to the council. This year, the city’s business interests, in the form of the Business Leadership Fund, endorsed many of the Republican candidates – who lost due to the lack of the ward system that business leaders in the ’90s had opposed. Liberals in Roanoke are now benefitting from the thing many of them opposed in ’97 and today’s conservatives are locked out of power by the thing their predecessors supported.
All the Republicans who ran this year backed a ward system, but since they didn’t win, there seems no realistic prospect for such a plan to be implemented. For the sake of argument, though, let’s imagine Roanoke did have a ward system. What might it look like and what would the political implications be?
First, we have a lot of assumptions to make. How many council seats would be elected by wards? All or some? Roanoke currently elects its mayor separately and then six council members. Lynchburg elects three council members at large and then four by wards, and then they select one of their own as mayor. There are lots of different options.
We also don’t know how wards would be drawn. They’d have to be redrawn – redistricted – every 10 years just like congressional districts and state legislative districts, so there’s always the potential for political mischief in the form of gerrymandering.
We also don’t know who the candidates would be. A ward system would create a different field of candidates because, historically, Roanoke’s council candidates have tended to come from the southwest and northwest parts of the city – few from northeast and southeast. Predominantly white, blue-collar neighborhoods are the ones least represented on the council.
For our purposes, let’s say Roanoke adopted the modified ward system Lynchburg has and elected four of its seven members via wards. That way we can neatly divide the city into its four natural quadrants – northwest, northeast, southeast, southwest. The actual drawing of such lines would need to be more precise to make sure the populations were balanced but we’re just brainstorming here.
The northwest part of Roanoke, with a large Black population, would surely elect a Democrat – or perhaps an independent, depending on who he or she might be. The northeast part of Roanoke – Preston Park, Williamson Road, East Gate and Hollins Road – would almost certainly elect a Republican. The southeast part of Roanoke – the blue-collar precincts of Southeast and Garden City and the white-collar precincts of South Roanoke and Crystal Spring – would probably elect a Republican, too. At the very least, that would put two Republicans on the council, more than the city has had since the early 2000s when Ralph Smith was mayor and Bill Carder was vice mayor (although Carder was distinctly more moderate than Smith and later left the party).
Now we come to the southwest quadrant of the city. The Deyerle precinct stands out as a Republican exception to its Democratic neighbors in Lee-Hi and Grandin Court. Since we don’t know how district lines might be drawn, this is all guesswork, but that part of the city would still trend Democratic – but a Republican candidate would have a strong base in Deyerle to start out on. Republican-voting Summit Hills fits geographically with northwest, but creative mapmakers – some might say gerrymanderers – might figure out a way to unite Deyerle with Summit Hills to make another Republican-leaning ward. Or maybe they wouldn’t even be gerrymanderers. Maybe the actual numbers necessary to balance out wards would lead to such a map. Depending on the candidate, and the political environment, a ward system might allow for as many as three Republicans on the seven-member council.
The point is that this year’s election returns show quite clearly how difficult it is for Republicans to win a citywide election in Roanoke, but there’s clearly a significant Republican vote in the city that is effectively disenfranchised by the at-large system. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing may depend on what party you support.