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I love blowing people’s minds with facts.
I did that when I wrote about how Northern Virginia is now losing population, according to the latest population data from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
I did it again when I wrote about how the Big Stone Gap micropolitan area now has a higher percentage of tech jobs than the Roanoke Valley, according to data crunched by the Brookings Institution.
I will likely do that again today when I tell you that the new redistricting plan has resulted in some districts in Southwest and Southside Virginia getting smaller rather than bigger.
That goes against everything we’ve expected. We in this part of the state have understood for generations that each redistricting is going to make our legislative districts bigger — we’re losing population, other parts of the state are gaining population, so to keep districts balanced ours have to become geographically bigger to take in more people.
The basic premise there is still true — our districts have had to take in more people — but some of them have become geographically smaller. How is that possible? The answer lies in the redistricting map drawn by the two special masters (one a Democrat, one a Republican) appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court. Where previous mapmakers were motivated by political considerations and often drew elongated districts to benefit certain parties or politicians, these mapmakers set out to draw compact districts that crossed as few county and city lines as possible.
I looked at some of the political impacts of that in a recent column where I examined how the new maps benefit Democrats in Albemarle County but may benefit Republicans in the Roanoke Valley.
The short version for those who don’t want to click through to see all the maps: In the previous redistricting, Democratic-voting Albemarle County was chopped into four pieces and three of them were attached to Republican-voting House districts. Two of those crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley; one district went all the way from the Charlottesville city limits to the West Virginia state line. Now Albemarle is put back together. There’s one House district that consists of Charlottesville and some parts of Albemarle, and then the rest of Albemarle is in a single district along with parts of some adjoining counties.
In the Roanoke Valley, state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, now represents a district that stretches from Carroll County into Bedford County, while state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, has represented a district that runs from Roanoke to Giles County. Now both are in a single district that is geographically smaller: Roanoke, Salem and parts of Roanoke and Montgomery counties. (Edwards is retiring and there’s now a three-way contest for the Democratic nomination to oppose Suetterlein.)
Today let’s look at some other districts where we see the same phenomenon: rural districts expanding in population yet becoming smaller geographically thanks to more compact mapmaking.
Let’s start with Virginia’s westernmost state Senate district, currently represented by state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County. For the past decade, the district ran from the Cumberland Gap to Wytheville and the outskirts of Galax, which Google Maps says is 168 miles or a three-hour drive. (Pretty sure Google Maps has never been stuck behind a slow-moving truck on U.S. 58.)
Here’s how that district looks now. The driving times are still challenging with mountain roads but the district is undeniably more compact. Since I don’t completely trust Google Maps on driving time in that part of the state, here’s a different way to measure things: Under the old redistricting map, to drive from one end of the district to another, you’d have to go through six localities to get from Lee County to Wythe County. Now you only have to go through four to go from Lee County to Washington County (three if you navigate around Bristol).
Now let’s look at the Senate district just north of that one, currently represented by state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County. The “old” district ran from Wise County to Radford, a distance of 154 miles.
The new district shifts eastward and runs from Tazewell County to Montgomery County. Google Maps measures the distance from the community of Raven, on the district’s western end, to Blacksburg at 102 miles.
Here’s the political price for that compactness: Those voters in strongly Democratic Blacksburg (where the Democratic vote has ranged from 60.5% to 73.8% depending on the precinct) once were allied with Democratic Roanoke and were able to elect a Democratic state senator. Now they’re in a more compact district but one where the Republican vote is put at 71.5%, based on an analysis of election returns by the Virginia Public Access Project. Compactness helps Democrats around Charlottesville but hurts them in Blacksburg.
I’ve already dealt with the Roanoke Valley in the previous column, but for the sake of putting everything in one place, I’ll repeat the highlights. Above are the districts that Edwards and Suetterlein have represented, both elongated districts. Now here’s the single district that both were drawn into (before Edwards announced his retirement).
Democrats aren’t keen on this district because it separates Democratic-voting Roanoke from Democratic-voting Blacksburg, thus “burying” their votes in two Republican-leaning districts. But it is undeniably more compact.
Now let’s move on to one of the oddest-shaped districts under the old maps. The district currently represented by state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, who is retiring, runs from east of Lynchburg all the way to the West Virginia line. Or, for those who are into alliteration, from Campbell County to Craig County. Much like that House district that under the old maps went from the Charlottesville city limits to the West Virginia line, this map is in defiance of geography, transportation networks, cultural ties and, well, common sense. Odd fact: We think of Newman as a Lynchburg guy; he’s a former member of the Lynchburg City Council. For the past decade, though, he’s represented four precincts in northern Roanoke County, not to mention Botetourt County and Craig County.
Newman is now retiring but if he were running again, this is the one he’d be running in. The old one covered pieces of six localities; the new one just three, all in their entirety. Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, lives in this district and is currently unopposed.
Not every district is smaller geographically but they are certainly more coherent. The district above is currently represented by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and looks like something took a big bite out of Pittsylvania County. It stretches from Galax to South Boston.
Now here’s his new district. The part of Wythe County included makes it somewhat odd, but mapmaking is a big jigsaw puzzle. If you’re trying to balance out the numbers, not everything is going to make complete sense.
If you wonder where that bite out of Pittsylvania went in the old maps, here it is. This is the district currently held by state Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County. It stretches from the Henry County line all the way to the James River east of Hopewell.
This is Ruff’s new district. He goes from representing all or parts of 11 localities to eight. By filling in the missing pieces of Pittsylvania County (and some other modifications), the length of this district is about two-thirds of what the old one was.
Here’s the district that state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, has represented, stretching from Alleghany County to Albemarle County or, if you prefer, from Covington to Charlottesville. This was a Democratic gerrymander a decade ago to give Deeds a base of Democratic voters in Charlottesville to make up for the rural voters who were realigning away from the Democratic Party. To get from one end to another, you have to cross multiple mountain ranges, much like that Lynchburg-to-Craig County district that Newman has had.
The special masters who drew the new lines paid no attention to where incumbents live, much to the chagrin of some of those incumbents. Deeds was drawn into a Republican-leaning district with two Republican senators, Mark Obenshain of Rockingham County and Emmett Hanger of Augusta County.
Deeds has solved that problem by moving to Charlottesville, although he now faces a primary challenge from Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. In any case, the new district he’s running in is entirely east of the Blue Ridge. The old district measured 109 miles from Covington to Charlottesville, the new one measures 64 miles from Madison Heights to Charlottesville.
When I wrote my previous column, I posed the question: Who benefits the most from more compact districts? I was thinking in terms of Democrats and Republicans, but one reader supplied what might be a better answer. His assessment of who benefits? “Voters.”
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An addendum: Sharp-eyed readers will notice that I skipped over the new Senate District 3. It’s an exception to my premise and didn’t fit neatly into the narrative flow, but it deserves a mention anyway. You’ll see that it’s very, um, long, going all the way from Craig County to Staunton and Waynesboro (or for those who really know their geography, from Johns Creek to Jolivue). The mapmakers found this unavoidable because their overriding goal was not to cross the Blue Ridge unless necessary (which they eventually found necessary in the case of the district we looked at above that goes from Franklin County to Wythe County).
As a resident of this district, I find it odd and unfortunate. I also don’t have a better solution, without creating a weirdly shaped district elsewhere. The shape of the district I’m currently in — the one Newman has represented, going all the way from Lynchburg to the West Virginia line — is even more odd and unfortunate. Nobody makes that drive; at least this district adheres to transportation networks. The district, as drawn, is also home to no incumbent. Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, is the Republican nominee in this strongly Republican district; he will face Democrat Jade Harris in November. Whoever wins can expect one thing: to spend a lot of time driving up and down Interstate 81.