Earlier this year, I wrote a column about how many rural legislative districts, while growing in size population-wise, have shrunk in size geographically because the current maps were drawn by two court-appointed “special masters,” not a political party bent on gerrymandering to achieve certain political outcomes.
Those special masters valued compactness rather than trying to favor one party or another. As part of that column, I pointed out one tradeoff: Sometimes certain “communities of interest” get “trapped” in a district that is unrepresentative of their point of view simply because that’s the most compact way to draw the district. My go-to example was how Democratic-voting Blacksburg wound up in a Senate district that voted 71.24% Republican in the 2021 governor’s race.
Democrats had wanted Blacksburg included in the same district as Democratic-voting Roanoke and came up with some convoluted mapping tricks to try to make that happen; some might call that gerrymandering. Instead, the two special masters — one Democratic, one Republican — focused on compactness and came up with this: Blacksburg is instead in a district that goes south to Tazewell County and is represented by state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell. Those Democratic voters in Blacksburg are now “trapped” in one of the most Republican Senate districts in the state.
That column prompted an email from a reader who suggested that those Democratic voters in Blacksburg are going to be quite unhappy for the coming decade. Yes, they are. But they’re not the only ones.
Those Democratic voters in Roanoke may wind up being unhappy, too. Without Blacksburg as part of the district, Senate District 4 votes 54.71% Republican. That’s close enough to be considered competitive. This map helps illustrate the electoral challenge for Democrat Trish White-Boyd as she runs against state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County; she really needs to maximize the Democratic vote in Roanoke (and the outskirts of Blacksburg that are in the district).
That original email about Blacksburg also prompted me to look at other “trapped” populations. In Southwest and Southside Virginia, that generally means Democratic urban areas that are part of rural-dominated districts that vote overwhelmingly Republican — such as those Blacksburg voters. But that’s not always the case, so let’s start with a case of Republicans who are “trapped” in a Democratic-dominated district.
This is the House of Delegates district represented by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. It covers most, but not all, of the city of Roanoke. In 2021, this district voted 58% Democratic. As you’ll see, though, that Democratic vote is concentrated in nine of the district’s 17 precincts. The other eight Republican-voting precincts are basically out of luck. East Gate and Garden City may vote 68% Republican but that’s never going to be enough to overcome the bigger Democratic vote in other parts of the district. (We see this same divide in Roanoke’s city council elections, which are all on an at-large basis. If Roanoke had a ward system, Democrats would still have a majority on the city council but some parts of the city would undoubtedly elect Republicans.)
These “trapped” Republicans in Roanoke are unusual only in that they’re on the western side of the state. We more typically find those “trapped” Republicans on the other side of the state, such as these Republican precincts in the Northern Virginia district now represented by state Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax County, and likely represented in January by Democrat Stella Pekarsky, who defeated him in the recent primary. She faces Republican Julie Perry, but this is a district that voted 60% Democratic in 2021.
But now back to Southwest and Southside.
I mentioned that Rasoul’s district covers most, but not all, of Roanoke. Here’s where the rest of it wound up — in a district that votes 59.21% Republican and is currently represented by Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County. I suspect these voters in Democratic-voting Lee-Hi precinct wish they were in Rasoul’s district instead. If mapmakers had drawn maps with politics in mind, they’d have certainly put Lee-Hi in with the rest of the city, and moved some of those Republican votes out of Rasoul’s district. Both Democrats and Republicans would want that — Republicans wouldn’t mind giving away these voters because Rasoul’s district is safely Democratic, so it’s not as if moving them would make any difference. But mapmakers with compactness in mind drew the lines a different way.
Let’s move on.
What we see above in Roanoke is typical: Cities generally vote Democratic. Not all of them, as we’ve seen, but enough of them that we can safely say that Roanoke is a majority Democratic community. Roanoke is also big enough that the city is slightly larger than the size of a House of Delegates district so Rasoul can get a district that’s entirely in the city — and safely Democratic.
The Democratic voters in smaller cities aren’t so lucky. Take Danville and Martinsville. Both cities regularly vote Democratic but they’re not big enough for a single House district. By the time you draw in enough voters in adjacent — and Republican-voting — counties, those Democratic voters in Danville and Martinsville wind up in strongly Republican districts.
Lynchburg is the same, but slightly different: A core of Democratic voters surrounded by Republican ones. The Hill City is more politically divided, but leaning to the right. Joe Biden won the city in 2020 but Glenn Youngkin carried it in 2021; the Hill City now has a Republican majority on its city council (even if they have broken into two factions fighting each other ferociously). There are strongly Democratic parts of Lynchburg, though, and they now find themselves “trapped” in a district that votes 57.57% Republican. This district is the one where Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, is running.
Now let’s pull back and look at things with a wider lens.
These are the three congressional districts for this side of the state. All three are strongly Republican; all three also have pockets where Democrats are in the majority. In the 9th, that’s Blacksburg and Martinsville. In the 6th, that’s Roanoke, Lexington, Staunton and Harrisonburg. In the 5th, that’s Albemarle County, Charlottesville and Danville — but especially Albemarle and Charlottesville.
Roanoke Democrats were resigned to being drawn into a Republican congressional district; there was realistically nowhere else they could go. Charlottesville and Albemarle County Democrats begged for the lines to be drawn a different way, so that they could be included in a Democratic-voting district. They obviously didn’t get their wish.
Lest you think that this column is mostly about Democrats whining that they’re stuck in Republican areas (what did you expect living in this part of Virginia, anyway?), let me show off one more example.
This is the state Senate district where Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, recently won the Democratic primary. From the look of the map, you’d think it would be competitive. It was — on the Democratic side in the June 20 primary, but not necessarily in the November general election. This is a district that votes 58.5% Democratic. The map is accurate but deceptive in the sense that it shows geography, not population density — that Democratic vote in Charlottesville far outweighs the Republican vote in the rural parts of the district. Those rural Republican voters are sure going to feel trapped — especially those in the Roseland precinct of Nelson County, which is 77.22% Republican.
Finally, let’s look at two other types of districts where some voters may feel trapped.
This is the Southwest Virginia state Senate district represented by Todd Pillion, R-Washington County. You’ll notice all the precincts are red — not just red but bright red. This is a district that voted 82.23% Republican in 2021. Many precincts were 90% or more Republican; the Clark’s precinct in Scott County was 95.86% Republican. The least Republican precinct was West Abingdon in Washington County, at 75.9% Republican. Even with such crushing margins, though, there are still some Democrats in this district — 17.36% of them districtwide. They may not be concentrated in a single place on the map where they’re a majority but they’re still there.
Now here’s the district where state Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, lives. You’ll see it’s all blue — and all bright blue except for one precinct where the Democratic vote was “only” 55% in 2021. The others are more than 60% and often more than 70% Democratic, with the bluest precinct being the Campbell precinct, which voted 76.56% Democratic. Overall, this is a 76.54% Democratic district — and those 22.56% of Republican voters can perhaps sympathize with their Democratic counterparts down in Pillion’s district.
If, for some reason, you don’t quite understand how the state is politically polarized, perhaps these last two maps will help.