Redistricting: the First Stab at Statewide Maps

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Virginia Redistricting Commission started out by dividing the state into eight regions. Its original plan was to proceed with drawing House and Senate districts, region by region, starting with Northern Virginia. That quickly proved to be inefficient, slow, and impractical.  Last week the map drawers  were instructed to produce statewide House and Senate maps. As part of their guidance, they were told to “respect” political subdivisions as much as possible, while adhering to the compactness and equal population requirements.

Today, they produced those maps for the Commission members, and the public, to view and comment on. I will use one county with which I am familiar, Halifax, to illustrate two aspects of the redistricting process: how different, legitimate approaches can produce different results and the partisanship dilemmas.

Under the map for the House of Delegates produced by the Republican map drawer, Halifax County is in District 81, paired with Campbell County, to the northwest. Under the map produced by his Democratic counterpart, Halifax County is in district 83, together with Charlotte, Mecklenburg, and Lunenburg Counties, to the east and northeast. They are both legitimate districts, but I would argue that the Democratic version is more compact and that Halifax County has more in common with Charlotte, Mecklenburg, and Lunenburg than it does with Campbell. For example, one of the South Boston newspapers, in Halifax County, also covers Mecklenburg. Those are community of interest issues, and the map drawers were not instructed to take those into consideration.

Partisanship considerations are looming large on the Commission. The map drawers have not been instructed to add incumbent addresses or voting history to their items to be considered. Some of the legislators on the Commission, particularly Del. Simon, D-Fairfax. and Sen. Barker, D-Fairfax, are pushing hard to add incumbent addresses to the mix of elements to be considered. The citizen members, especially the two co-chairwomen, are resisting, saying they want to reach a consensus on district lines, based on population and Voting Rights Act considerations before adding partisan issues to the decision making. One of the primary arguments of the legislators is that anyone, including themselves, can see that information on maps produced by VPAP. (You can see it, too, here.)  Therefore, they argue, the Commission should not be the only ones not taking note of this data.

Based on the VPAP maps, three things are obvious. One, Southside Virginia is going to lose representation. Two,  that loss will come about through the lumping of more than one Republican delegate in one district. Three, the placement of two or more delegates in one district will be a bipartisan occurrence.

Under the Democratic plan, James Edmunds, R-Halifax. and Tommy Wright, R-Mecklenburg, would be in the same district.  Under the Republican plan, Edmunds, Matt Farris,(R-Campbell, and Kathy Byron, R-Campbell, would share a district. Under both plans, in other parts of the state Republican incumbents would be pitted against each other. However, Democrats are not spared. In fact, under the plan drawn by the Democratic map drawer, Del. Simon would be included in a district also inhabited by his fellow Democrats, Kathleen Murphy and Rip Sullivan.

The maps produced today are, everyone agrees, the first drafts and will be changed, perhaps significantly, over the next couple of weeks. The Democratic and Republican map drawers have been directed to produce maps for those areas in which they can come to an agreement. Next, the databases used to draw the maps will be updated to include the data needed to draw districts in compliance with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act relative to ensuring that minority voters have the opportunity to elect candidates they prefer. The Voting Rights Act provisions and related court decisions are incredibly complex and there is not complete agreement among the lawyers for the different parties as to what is required and what is only permitted. That will be a subject for my next post on redistricting.

There are a lot of moving parts. In addition to population equity, compactness, racial equity, partisan neutrality, there are communities of interest considerations, which are somewhat subjective. At some point, the Commission will take all these factors into account in producing final maps. Members of the public have the ability to post comments on the Commission maps and they are taking advantage of that ability. The Commission members seem to be paying attention.