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A lot of people who weren’t paying attention in the fall and winter of 2021 whenever they saw a news story with the word “redistricting” are going to be very surprised when they go to the polls this year.
That surprise will fall on both sides of our ideological divide.
Historically, legislative lines were drawn by whichever party was in power in the General Assembly, and those lines were specifically drawn to benefit that party and hurt the other one. Both Democrats and Republicans were equally adept at drawing weirdly shaped districts for political purposes — what we know as gerrymandering.
Now, for the first time, neither party had a say in the legislative maps. They were drawn by two “special masters” appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court. Their mandate was to ignore politics and draw geographically coherent districts. We’re already seeing the first fallout from that: a wave of legislative retirements, some of which might have happened anyway, but others brought on by legislators finding themselves in districts not well-suited to their politics.
Over the coming months, as both parties set about picking their nominees for the November elections, we’ll see even more fallout from the new lines.
I recently wrote about how Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell County, faced political difficulty returning to Richmond even before he was charged with two felonies stemming from a traffic incident. His new district is more Republican than his previous one, which you’d think would help but doesn’t. It includes a lot of new territory where he’s never run before, and now he has a challenger who might have more support in that new territory than he does.
Enough readers were surprised by that news that I’m prompted to take a closer look at some other districts. Fariss’ case is a perfect example of the new redistricting maps. His previous district was a clear case of gerrymandering: an elongated district that started south of Lynchburg and wound up at the Charlottesville city limits, specifically to disadvantage Democrats in Albemarle County:
His new district is more geographically coherent yet more Republican (and not particularly advantageous to Fariss). The point: More compact districts don’t necessarily make districts more competitive; sometimes they make them less so. It all depends on which voters are being, well, compacted.
Now let’s look at some other examples of how a more compact district can change the politics of that district.
First, let’s start in Albemarle County — generally outside our coverage area, but it’s a good example, and it has implications for the districts in our area.
Albemarle County generally votes Democratic. It’s voted Democratic in every presidential election since 2004 and that leftward tilt is increasing. In 2004, Albemarle voted 50.5% Democratic; by 2020, it voted 65.7% Democratic.
That’s why in the 2011 redistricting, the Republicans in charge of mapmaking chopped Albemarle into four pieces. Three of them were connected with Republican-voting areas in other counties so that the Albemarle vote would be only a minority in those districts; the fourth part was connected with Democratic-voting Charlottesville.
Here’s how those districts looked then.
This district, which elected Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle County, even crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains to include part of Rockingham County. In his 2021 election, Albemarle voters accounted for 41% of the voters in the district.
This district, which elected Del. Chris Runion, R-Rockingham County, might be my favorite because it not only crosses the Blue Ridge, it goes all the way from Charlottesville to the West Virginia line. In 2021, Albemarle voters accounted for 35% of the voters in the district.
And then we have this district that connected part of Albemarle with Republican-voting counties all the way south of Lynchburg. This is the district that has elected Fariss. I’ve already shown it once above but show it off here again so all the Albemarle-related districts are in the same place.
Finally, this was the sole Democratic district, consisting of Charlottesville and some parts of Albemarle. This is the district that has elected Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, who is now giving up this seat to run for the state Senate.
Now let’s move on to how redistricting created more compact districts involving Charlottesville and Albemarle.
The Charlottesville-based district didn’t change much — it’s still Charlottesville and parts of Albemarle, just more of Albemarle to make the population numbers work out.
But the rest of Albemarle County sure did. As you can see, the rest of Albemarle has been consolidated into a single district, along with parts of Nelson and Fluvanna to hit the necessary population target.
Whereas before, Democratic-voting Albemarle was sliced into four districts — three voting Republican, one Democratic — now it’s in two districts that both tilt strongly Democratic.
That’s a case where a geographically coherent district benefits Democrats, but there are other examples where geographically coherent districts benefit Republicans.
The obvious one for us involves the state Senate seat in the Roanoke Valley and New River Valley.
The Roanoke Valley is currently home to two state senators: John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County. Their districts, though, are sprawling affairs.
Suetterlein’s present district runs from Wytheville into Bedford County. It contains parts of eight localities; only two — Floyd County and Salem — are entirely in the district. This oddly shaped district was drawn by Democrats to disadvantage Republicans. It’s an overwhelmingly Republican district but at the time it was drawn, it meant some Republican legislators either had to move or retire lest they be paired together. Because of Smith Mountain Lake, it’s impossible to drive from one end to the other and remain in the same district.
Meanwhile, Edwards’ current district connects Democratic-voting Roanoke with Democratic-voting Blacksburg. Democrats like that because it makes for a Democratic district, but you can look at the map and decide for yourself whether that map is a logical one.
Now here’s what the new map does:
Democrats wanted to keep the Roanoke-Blacksburg connection for the obvious reasons. The mapmakers didn’t do that. They put Roanoke, Salem, most of Roanoke County and part of Montgomery County into the same district — a more compact district but one that leaves Blacksburg out. The result: This is a district that tilts 52% to 54% Republican. You can look at this as either a geographically sensible district or, if you’re a Democrat, as a district where the Democratic vote in Roanoke is “buried” in a Republican-leaning district.
Southwest Virginia was going to lose a Senate seat anyway because this part of the state has been losing population and other parts gaining. As cartological luck would have it, that lost seat will come out of the Roanoke Valley because Edwards and Suetterlein were paired together. (Edwards has since announced his retirement and three Democrats are running for the right to oppose Suetterlein.) Not that long ago (the early 2000s), there were three state senators living between Fincastle and Shawsville; now may just be one or two, depending on who wins the Republican nomination in the district just to the north, which stretches from Roanoke County to Staunton and Waynesboro. That’s another way to visualize the state’s population changes.
So who benefits from the new maps? That’s a matter of some dispute. To some extent, Republicans do, if only because if Democrats had retained control of the mapmaking process — and they still had the majority in the General Assembly in 2021 when that would have been done — they’d have certainly drawn less favorable maps for Republicans. On the other hand, the new maps do contain a slight majority of Democratic-voting districts in both the House and Senate; that’s not necessarily the result of bias from the mapmakers but simply a reflection of Virginia’s recent voting history.
Those special masters calculated that 23 Senate districts tilt Democratic, 17 Republican, although three of those on the Democratic side fall between 50% and 54% Democratic and so might also be considered competitive districts. For that matter, two districts on the Republican side fall between 47% and 50% Republican, so we may really have five competitive districts that will decide control of the state Senate. One of those is that Roanoke-New River valley Senate district discussed above. Two more Democratic districts and one Republican district fall just outside that 47% to 54% range, making them potentially competitive as well.
On the House side, 53 districts are rated majority Democratic, 47 majority Republican. But five of those Democratic districts are between 50% and 54% Democratic (actually they’re between 50% and 53% Democratic), while nine Republican districts are between 47% and 50% Republican. That’s 14 competitive districts. Just outside that range are two Democratic districts and three Republican ones. All these are where the majority will be decided. One of those is a House seat that covers part of Roanoke County and Montgomery County and has no incumbent:
It’s officially rated 50.6% Democratic based on the 2017 election returns but it voted 55.5% for Republican Glenn Youngkin in the 2021 governor’s race, so the 2017 returns that the special masters used for rating purposes may be out of date.
All we know for certain is that Lily Franklin will be the Democratic candidate in this district and Republicans will choose between Chris Obenshain and Lowell Bowman in a May 4 convention. We also know one other thing: This district is pretty compact. We’ll find out in November who benefits from that.
You can see all the new House districts here and all the new Senate districts here.