by Scott Dreyer
In March 1812, the Boston Gazette ran a cartoon showing “a new species of monster” — ”the Gerry-mander.” It made fun of a contorted voting district that the Jeffersonian Republicans had drawn up to benefit its candidates. Governor Elbridge Gerry signed off on it, and with the cartoon’s publication, a new word entered the English language. “Gerrymandering” is the process whereby politicians can influence elections based on who is voting in that district.
Every ten years after our nation’s new census, those in power scramble to draw new political boundaries. Because of the “one man-one vote” principle, each district should have roughly the same population as all the others. However, these districts are not to be drawn too willy-nilly. Each district is supposed to combine “communities of interest.” In other words, each district should contain people who have much in common geographically, culturally, and economically. Also, the districts are supposed to be compact and contiguous. That is, the regions are to be as small and close together as reasonably possible.
This brings us to Southwest Virginia now.
Because of our relatively low population density, much of our region has only two State Senate seats. One is District 21. Look at its bizarre shape. Doesn’t it look like some kind of “political monster”? Imagine Roanoke City is its head. Its neck is a rural, sparsely populated corridor including parts of Mason’s Cove and Catawba. Its torso is around Virginia Tech/Blacksburg, with rural Giles County bringing up the rear, so to speak.
I experienced the ridiculousness of District 21 for the fifteen years my family lived in Roanoke. We were lumped into the same area as Blacksburg, Pearisburg, and Narrows; its line went right up to the border of West Virginia! Granted, we had a neighbor behind us who worked at Tech so he made the commute daily. However for me, I would usually go there once every few years while driving to visit relatives in Indiana. For most Roanokers, I dare say, trips to Blacksburg are infrequent, and trips to Narrows even less.
But from my old home in Southwest Roanoke City, if I drove five minutes down Brambleton Avenue into Roanoke County–voila–I was suddenly in a new district: 19. In sum, the Cave Spring Corners area, where I was several times a week, had a different state senator, but the NRV and Giles County on the West Virginia line where I seldom went was the 21st. I am sure most people in Roanoke City spend far more time in Roanoke County than they do in Narrows.
This shape of the 21st, though odd, is not a coincidence. It is a carefully mapped-out sleight of hand. Roanoke City and Tech–due to their demographics–have large Democrat populations. In fact, by lumping both together–even though they are separated by an hour’s drive–create a safe “blue” seat. Pity the rural voters around Catawba and Giles County–they are essentially GOP-leaning “sacrificial lambs” whose votes are consistently overwhelmed by the two blue urban regions. This explains why Sen. John Edwards (D) keeps easily winning this seat over and over, and has since the last millennium. The seat is not competitive. Anyone with a (D) behind the name has a high chance of winning it.
This is why I have dubbed State Senate District 21 a “Johnnymander.”
But this gerrymandering is a two-edged sword. By lumping the blue regions of Roanoke City and Blacksburg into the 21st district, the result is, almost the rest of the region is bright red. Because it misses the urban areas of Roanoke and Tech, the surrounding area called District 19 is both sprawling and so heavily Republican that it, too, is non-competitive. It extends as far West as Wytheville and as far south as near Mabry Mill, it envelops the Roanoke Valley on three sides, all of Smith Mountain Lake, and it reaches as far east as the outskirts of Lynchburg. Any Democrat running there would surely face huge headwinds. It is currently represented by Republican state senator David Suetterlein.
By having our two state senate districts so heavily gerrymandered to favor one party of the other, I believe we Southwest Virginians are losing. Those elections are largely non-competitive, plus both the Roanoke and New River Valleys are split.
Using 2020 census results, the Virginia Supreme Court will soon decide new House of Delegates and State Senate district lines. You can view the proposed maps here.
Please notice the proposed District 3, in purple, also splits the Roanoke Valley. It lumps Vinton, Bonsack, Hollins and Catawba into a sprawling district that runs up I-81 as far as Staunton and Waynesboro! If few Roanokers travel to Blacksburg daily, I bet even fewer make a daily trek to Stuarts Draft! In contrast, the proposed District 4, in brown, lumps in Roanoke City, Salem and Cave Spring with Shawsville and other parts of Montgomery County.
Would it not make more sense, for the Roanoke Valley to be in one senate district, and the NRV in another? Plus, by actually placing heaving Democrat and Republican neighborhoods in the same districts, it should make elections more competitive, which should result in more responsive leadership. That would certainly make each seat more “compact and contiguous” plus guarantee a more close “community of interest” for both.
Scott Dreyer teaches English as a Second Language in Roanoke. This column has been republished with permission from The Roanoke Star.