Drawing the Party Line: Virginia’s Journey So Far

Virginia has been in the news for redistricting, mostly for the 2016 redistricting decision.


2012-2016 congressional districts

(source: Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Even without these statistics, the untrained eye can easily point out problems with the districts in question.

Contiguity: The 3rd district is fractured into seven parts that share no geographical connection. Continuity standards for voting districts are not met.

Compactness: As with the above criteria, the district is spread out and is not confined to a compact district.

As for the less visible criteria,

Population: Perhaps the only correct thing about the district is its population. A district should be occupied by approximately  710,000 people, give or take depending on the population distribution of the area.

Due to the Voting Rights Act of 1963, districts cannot be drawn in a way that “improperly dilute minorities’ voting power.” However, the 3rd congressional district was sitting at a 56.3% African-American voter majority while the 4th district sat at 30.1%. It seemed that the 3rd district had been purposefully drawn to pack in as many African-American voters, which diminished their ability to influence elections in surrounding districts. However, there existed an alternative perspective that Virginia lawmakers drew the district to protect the incumbency of the 3rd district Representative, Bobby Scott. Additionally, legislators claimed that they were complying with the Voting Rights Act by ensuring that minority voters had a chance to elect a minority candidate in a majority-minority district.

The road to a new district map was complex and started back in 2013, when the map was originally challenged. The case was sent to the US District Court of Eastern Virginia in 2014, which ruled that a racial gerrymander did exist and requested that new maps be made before the next election. It was appealed to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court remanded (sent back) the decision to the US District Court of Eastern Virginia in light of the decision in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, which ruled against the creation of majority-minority districts. In 2015, the US District Court of Eastern Virginia again ruled that there was a racial gerrymander and the maps needed to be redrawn by the legislature. The Republican-controlled Virginia state legislature, likely aware that the breakup of a minority-majority district threatened Republican re-election, did everything in their power to avoid redrawing the districts.

With the legislature uncooperative, the task of redistricting fell to an unconventional source: a panel of federal judges.

In January 2016, this panel imposed new districts, as pictured below.

Current Virginia congressional districts

(Source: Stephen Wolf)

One of the first things you notice is that the 3rd and 4th districts are not the only ones changed by the decision. District 1, 2,  3, 4, and 7 were redrawn, with notable results for a few.

3rd district: African-American voter percentage dropped from 56.3 percent to 45.3 percent. District is now compact and contiguous.

4th district: African-American voter percentage rose from 31.3 percent to 40.9 percent.

7th district: African-American voter percentage rose from 15 percent to 19 percent, loss of Tea Party stronghold Hanover County (considered to be a major force behind current Rep. Dave Brat’s initial election)

Due to these changes, Representatives Brat (7th),  Forbes (4th), and Wittman (1st), challenged their new districts on the grounds that their re-election chances had been unfairly injured. Their appeal went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the representatives, stating than none of them had any grounds (Forbes had started running in the 2nd district instead, Brat and Wittman still occupied Republican-majority districts).

That settles the 2016 redistricting. But with the 2020 census looming in the not-so distant future, what method should Virginia employ to draw voter districts?

On a more individual note, the product of my research will likely be a longer write-up in the form of an academic paper, but I am also considering producing a condensed fact sheet pamphlet for the research showcase in September. Since I had difficulty finding an all-in-one source for Virginia redistricting information, I think an approachable, condensed summary of the current redistricting situation is an appropriate take-home handout to have at my trifold presentation station.

About the author: The researcher took ill for the entire past month (the planned month for research consolidation) due to a highly infectious disease, carried to her by her little sister, so it is only now that she can compile her research into a sufficient post.