The Bulletin

‘Things don’t look that bad’: Princeton experts offer roadmap for a Va. redistricting compromise

By: - October 5, 2021 11:59 am

Redistricting commission member Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, looks up at a draft map during a meeting. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s recent meetings have taken on a gloomy tone, with many predicting it’s all but certain to fail and leave it to the Supreme Court of Virginia to redraw the state’s political maps.

But experts at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which is grading redistricting proposals from numerous states based on criteria like political fairness, competitiveness and geography, say that with a few minor changes to draft maps, the commission can still deliver on the expectation of a fairer result.

“The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s deliberations have been contentious, and according to some spectators, a fraught process. But from a distance, things don’t look that bad,” Princeton professor Sam Wang wrote in a Wednesday memo addressed “to interested parties in Virginia.”

The memo suggests a final round of edits to a Republican-drawn House of Delegates map and an attempted compromise Senate map, all of which it says would make a few Republican-leaning districts more competitive and improve the maps’ fairness overall.

“Although the Redistricting Commission may be feeling fatigued, they are closer to success than they realize,” Wang wrote.

For the House proposal, the Princeton team suggests making small changes to two Republican-leaning draft districts in Virginia Beach and a third on the outskirts of Northern Virginia to achieve fairer results based on its simulation of “1 million possible maps.” After those changes, the memo says, the House map would lean Democratic overall but with 15 competitive seats.

“That is the offer by Republicans: the natural majority party, in this case Democrats, gets its fair share on average, but Republicans have a shot at winning seats,” Wang wrote.

For the Democratic-drawn Senate map, the Princeton memo suggests nudging two “barely-Republican” districts in Democrats’ favor.

“There would still be seven competitive seats, a major plus for both parties,” the memo says.

The memo acknowledges that, as non-Virginia residents, the Princeton team has less knowledge of the types of local community ties that may not show up in data.

Democrats on the commission have said new maps should reflect their decade of dominance in statewide elections and Virginia’s diversifying electorate, arguing maps that fall too close to an even split won’t fairly reflect the state’s increasingly blue politics. But the commission itself is evenly split by design, and neither party has been willing to cede much ground on draft maps drawn by their side’s consultants.

The commission is conducting a series of virtual public hearings this week and is scheduled to meet Friday to begin a final attempt at compromise.

At a meeting Saturday, Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, used an extended baking metaphor to describe the work ahead. Where some might throw out a cake that seems ruined, she said, she uses all ingredients and techniques possible to try to turn it into something people will eat.

“We’ve got to take this cake and rebake it,” she said.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.