Virginia Redistricting Commission consultants told to compromise on Congressional maps

‘I don’t think either of these maps is a good place to start’

By: - October 14, 2021 2:29 pm

Draft maps are presented at a meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s bipartisan Redistricting Commission put work on House of Delegates and state Senate districts behind it Thursday and moved on to redrawing congressional district boundaries.

In taking up the state’s 11 U.S. House boundaries, the bipartisan commission punted on its duty to remap state legislative districts to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Without comment on partisan rifts that scuttled their work on the 40 state Senate districts and 100 House of Delegates seats, commissioners got their first glimpse of tentative competing congressional drafts from Democratic and Republican consultants advising the panel. And within minutes, partisan differences emerged anew alongside related concerns about geography, demography and topography.

‘We have had the airing of the grievances’; Va. Redistricting Commission moves on to Congressional maps

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, one of eight state legislators (four from each party) on the evenly split 16-member panel, questioned a proposal from GOP consultants that grafts a small sliver of an affluent Henrico County suburb bounding the James River west of Richmond onto the massive 5th Congressional District, which elected U.S. Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell, last year. 

“The thing that sort of stands out … is you take out a little bit of Henrico County (and) put it all the way in with Southside,” Simon said. “That is what starts to feel like a gerrymander to the extent that it’s cracking suburbs that were trending blue.

“I can’t imagine someone in Henrico feels like they have any congressional representation under that map; that they have anything in common with District 5” he said. “For all the folks on public comment who say we need to put our differences behind us, this is the kind of a move that makes me feel a little suspicious of where these lines really go.”

Another Democratic legislative member of the panel, Sen. George Barker of Fairfax, voiced a similar concern, noting that the 5th district pushes significantly into another increasingly Democratic Richmond suburb, Chesterfield County. Large parts of neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield are currently part of the 7th District, which is represented by Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger.

A draft congressional map from Virginia’s Redistricting Commission. (Virginia Redistricting Commission)

Richard Harrell III, a 5th District resident and Republican citizen member of the commission from South Boston, disputed the Democrats’ suggestion that partisan gamesmanship was driving the earliest drafts of the congressional maps. He said he believed the map was responsibly redrawn to center the 5th geographically in his region, an improvement over its elongated present configuration that stretches from the North Carolina border to “near the Maryland line” in Fauquier County, a drive of more than four hours.

“I think the characterization that there’s something underhanded about him taking the less northerly route – it’s better for us to leave the characterization alone,” Harrell said.

Later, Simon found it untenable that, by his count, both new maps create six Republican-majority districts and only five Democratic-voting ones in a state where the GOP has not won a statewide election since 2009.

“I want to be the bad guy and everyone online can yell at me,” he said, noting the partisan imbalance favoring the GOP, which now controls four of Virginia’s U.S. House seats. “It’s not competitive. You’ve got five very safe Democratic districts and six very safe Republican ones. …I don’t think either of these maps is a good place to start.”

The competing GOP and Democratic first drafts – while far from those that will be enacted before next year’s federal midterm elections – propose some significant alterations to existing boundaries and shared many similarities.

Southwestern Virginia’s 9th District lost so much population that it was forced to expand its footprint significantly to achieve the new target of nearly 785,000 people for each district. Under the new proposals, it creeps eastward into Henry County and northward to swallow the entire city of Roanoke.

Conversely, the populous suburban districts that cover the Washington, D.C., commuter communities contract geographically to meet the population threshold. The 8th would include all of Alexandria, Arlington and Falls Church. The 10th would retract into Loudoun, Clarke, a northern strip of Prince William and western Fairfax County. The 11th would serve the bulk of Fairfax County, the city of Fairfax and the town of Vienna.

In between, the 7th becomes unmoored from the Richmond suburbs it has served for decades to sprawl from Stafford County and Fredericksburg on the east to the West Virginia line, then reach Winchester and Front Royal on the state’s northern tip.

Commissioners from both parties, however, remained mindful that the boundaries remain highly malleable with the least tolerance for change coming in the 3rd and 4th districts with significant populations of Black voters whose voting strength can’t be diluted under federal law.

A concern focused particularly on the 9th and 6th districts was whether to configure them so that they straddle – and are bisected by – the Blue Ridge Mountain range. By extending those western districts farther northeast along Interstate 81 and keeping them mostly west of the Blue Ridge, the partisan balance would be more equitable, Simon suggested. Again, Harrell differed.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that when you do the most logical, compact maps, Republicans gain from where some people think they should be,” he said, dismissing concerns about mountains splitting congressional districts.

Greta Harris of Richmond, the Democratic co-chair of the commission who presided over Thursday’s session, instructed  Democratic and Republican consultants to compromise on a single congressional map by Monday’s meeting that can be presented for public comment and serve as a starting point for further work.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the number of U.S. House seats from Virginia controlled by Republicans. 

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]