They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. Much of today’s column will be pictures, so today you’ll get a lot of words, but many of them will be metaphorical, not literal.
The occasion is some nifty number-crunching from the Virginia Public Access Project, the nonprofit that tracks money in Virginia politics and is, generally speaking, a go-to site for lots of things political in the commonwealth. VPAP has put together a series of interactive maps that show the recent election returns at the precinct level. We’re all accustomed to maps that show election returns on the county or city level, but those often obscure deeper trends, especially in larger, more diverse communities such as Danville, Roanoke, Lynchburg or Montgomery County where some precincts are strongly Democratic and others are strongly Republican. (In a previous column I looked at the geographical distribution of votes in Roanoke’s city council election, pointing out how if the city elected council members by a ward system rather than at-large, Roanoke would have elected at least two Republicans instead of having a Democratic sweep.)
This analysis is also made possible by legislation sponsored by state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County. When Virginia adopted early voting, those votes were counted as absentee ballots. We’ve always had a relatively small number of absentee ballots tallied in a “central absentee precinct” but they were usually too few to make a difference. Suddenly in 2020, when we had lots of people vote early – 63% – we wound up with some unfortunate election mirages. Because many Democrats preferred to vote early and many Republicans preferred traditional in-person, day-of voting, we had returns that appeared to show Republicans sweeping many Democratic strongholds – much to their delight, of course. Then we had this massive “ballot drop” later in the evening when the absentees were reported – and no way to attribute those to specific precincts.
If you’re the suspicious type – and, alas, many have become unnecessarily suspicious – it looked wrong when it wasn’t. In effect, Virginia was counting and reporting Republican votes first and Democratic votes second. As a journalist, I didn’t like this system, either, because it meant we could no longer do in-depth analysis of voting trends. Take Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea’s reelection victory over former Mayor David Bowers in 2021. Where did Lea’s vote come from? Did he win consistently citywide? Or did he run up big margins in just one part of town? We have no way to really know because so many votes were simply listed as “central absentee precinct.”
Suetterlein’s bill corrects that and restores us to the kind of vote counting we’ve always had – with votes tallied by precinct. We get the best of both worlds: the convenience of early voting, and the transparency that allows political analysts of all stripes to study the returns and figure out what historical trends we’re seeing. Both parties benefit from that.
So, thank VPAP for these maps and thank Suetterlein for the legislation that made them possible. I should also point out that state Sen. Creigh Deeds, then D-Bath County and now D-Charlottesville, provided a valuable assist to get this bill through.
Now, on to the maps. I’ll start with the maps for the three congressional districts in Cardinal territory: the 5th, the 6th and the 9th. All three districts were won by Republicans. I wrote before the election about why the 6th and 9th districts are so predictably Republican; the 5th is somewhat more competitive. These maps help show on a deeper level why these districts are so Republican. They also show why it’s impossible to draw a Democratic district in this part of the state. Keep in mind that precincts aren’t of equal size and geography doesn’t vote, but they still show how the small Democratic vote in 6th and 9th is concentrated in just a few places.
Let’s start with the 9th because, as everyone in Southwest Virginia knows, that isn’t where Virginia ends, it’s where Virginia begins.
Democrat Taysha DeVaughan only carried two localities in the 9th: Martinsville and Montgomery County. However, her vote was really more concentrated than that. In Martinsville, she won only four of the city’s nine precincts. In Montgomery County, she won only 12 of the county’s 29 precincts. Overall she took 51% in Montgomery County, but within the county, the vote was quite polarized – 86.9% for DeVaughan in precinct E-3 in Blacksburg but 75.1% for Republican incumbent Morgan Griffith in precinct C-3 in the Ironto area. Montgomery County may appear to be a swing county and, in theory, it is, but that’s only a mathematical result. Outside of Blacksburg, Montgomery County is strongly Republican.
Now we come to the 6th District. The Democratic vote here resembles pearls on a string – concentrated in cities along Interstate 81, from Roanoke to Lexington to Staunton to Harrisonburg to Winchester. Unfortunately for Democrats (and fortunately for Republicans), they’re just not enough of them, and lots of Republicans in between. And within those localities that Democrat Jennifer Lewis carried against Republican Ben Cline, her vote wasn’t widespread. In Roanoke, home to the biggest Democratic vote in the district, she carried 11 of the city’s 20 precincts.
Different district, same trends. Democrats in Charlottesville and Albemarle County lobbied hard for their community to be excised from the 5th Congressional District and grouped with, well, any other district that might actually elect a Democrat. Those arguments held little sway with the court-appointed special masters who drew the district lines and prized geographical coherence over political considerations. (More on that process below.) The 5th District is a geographically compact district that makes a lot of cartological sense. It just doesn’t do Democrats in Charlottesville and Albemarle much good. They’d have been better off with some old-fashioned gerrymandering. Still, this map shows something the others don’t: some pockets of Democratic support scattered around the district.
Now we get to the interesting one. Virginia saw only one seat change hands: In the 2nd Congressional District in Hampton Roads, Democrat Elaine Luria lost to Republican Jennifer Kiggans. As I pointed out in a previous column, what really defeated Luria was Virginia’s new redistricting system. In the old days, the majority party in the General Assembly could have drawn the lines however it wanted. Since that was Democrats last year, they would have drawn a district more friendly to Luria – the 2nd has long been a competitive district but they could have made it less so. Instead, voters approved a constitutional amendment that took the power of redistricting away from the majority party in the legislature and gave it to a bipartisan state commission; when that commission predictably deadlocked, the task went to the Virginia Supreme Court, which appointed two special masters (one from each party) to draw lines based on non-political considerations. You can see the result in this map. Everything from Chesapeake west to Southampton County was added to the district, and most of those places were Republican-voting areas. Luria actually edged out Kiggans on the Republican’s home turf in Virginia Beach but not by enough to counter all those Republican votes in the western part of the district. In the Berlin precinct in Southampton County, Kiggans took 83.39% of the vote. Luria had strong support in some parts of that new territory – 80.5% in Hunterville in Suffolk, another 80.5% in Pughsville in Suffolk and 89% in the similarly named Pughsville precinct in Chesapeake. But there were too many Republican votes all around those. Democratic mapmakers would have surely taken some parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth to help pad Luria’s vote.
Here’s a happier story for Democrats. Redistricting radically reshaped the 7th District and deprived incumbent Abigail Spanberger of her base in the Richmond suburbs. Instead, it created a new one for her in Northern Virginia. You can see here how concentrated Spanberger’s vote was around Fredericksburg and in Prince William County. You may recall that on election night she trailed most of the evening, because Prince William was late to report, as big localities typically are. Spanberger was confident, though, and this map shows why.
This map also shows something else: the challenge we have in governing such a geographically polarized country. Elections are winner-take-all affairs. Spanberger took 52% of the vote – and gets 100% of the seat. But there are still large portions of her district that voted strongly against her. She has to represent those, too. Geography may not vote but it still helps set the tone for a lot of our conversations. We’re a 50/50 nation and we’d be better off if every community were the same, but we’re not. We’re strongly polarized communities sometimes living side by side in the same district. The same challenge applies to the Republican winners who clearly have broad support across their districts, but have pockets that are overwhelmingly Democratic.
You can see much the same thing in the map below of the 10th Congressional District, where Democrat Jennifer Wexton held off a strong challenge by Republican Hung Cao. Her vote was mostly in Loudoun County and Prince William County; his was generally in the rural counties added onto the district. In some ways, the 10th is the mirror image of the 5th District.
If all this intrigues you, I invite you to click through to the VPAP site. All their maps are interactive so you can click on individual precincts and get the specific results. You can look those up, too, on the State Board of Elections website, but VPAP’s maps make it easier to visualize just how concentrated the Democratic vote in the state is – often to its disadvantage.