New maps and a new reality in Virginia

The four-year, twisting tale of 11 Virginia House districts judged to be racially gerrymandered is reaching its climax, as the federal court presiding over the case has drawn new lines for 26 districts, both those at issue and 15 adjacent ones.

Of personal interest are the 72nd and 73rd districts in suburban Richmond, because I walked them during the 2017 election campaign, and because the court’s solution apparently considers the central questions of redistricting: maps that are fair to all voters – or as we say, compact and contiguous, reflective of constituencies, without favor to parties or candidates, and perhaps politically competitive. These issues are before the General Assembly as it considers a nonpartisan redistricting commission advocated by OneVirginia2021.

On their face, the current lines of the 72nd and 73rd are absurd – a court brief referred to the 72nd, now represented by my buddy Schuyler VanValkenburg, as a “toilet bowl.” The 72nd wraps around the 73rd, and both were drawn in 2011 for the benefit of two Republican incumbents who lived near each other and, under the state constitution, must live in the districts they represent.

The 72nd was one of the 11 districts the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 found to be racially gerrymandered. The 73rd was never part of the case, and it looks like a relatively reasonable district – not round but not twisted into a pretzel, with a political profile befitting what was then the area’s suburban, conservative character (the Republican incumbent had drawn no opponent since the 2011 redistricting until Democrat Debra Rodman defeated him in 2017).

The special master appointed by the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia proposed two maps: one that split the two into halves (the map at left, above) and another (at right) that swapped a couple of 72nd precincts with another district and did not touch the 73rd. The court chose the second option, which the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan organization that produced these maps, projects will tilt the 72nd 1.94 points to the left.

As a matter of geography, the left map makes sense. As a matter of politics, it would have produced one solidly Democratic and one solidly Republican district, neither competitive by current measures. And it would have been disruptive. It might have required its incumbents to give up their seats unless they chose to move. It would have gone far beyond the purview of the court – to address racial gerrymandering, not make the districts compact and contiguous, or necessarily affect their political composition.

In total, the new maps are detrimental to the GOP’s 51-49 hold on the House of Delegates, and Speaker Kirkland Cox decried the court’s decision. But we expected that. After all, according to the court record, the GOP’s author of the 2011 maps, Chris Jones, worked with black incumbent Democrats to draw them safe districts at the expense of a map that would have been more competitive and favorable to Democrats as a whole. The Supreme Court struck down the plan as a racial gerrymander because it packed blacks into fewer districts, thus diluting their voting strength. The new House maps appear to threaten a net of at least a half-dozen GOP seats.

The final chapter in this story may be written by June, when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Cox’s appeal of the district court’s order to redraw the 11 districts per the Supremes’ 7-1 decision in 2017. Four justices, I assume, agreed to take the case: the two (Thomas and Alito) who wrote separate opinions two years ago joined by the two Trump nominees.

It’s possible that Chief Justice Roberts will reverse his support for the principles underlying then-Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion – that the court was bound by precedents striking down racial gerrymandering. That seems unlikely, as the high court declined January 8 to stop the district court from drawing new maps until the underlying case is decided. But it is Cox’s prayer, and his only hope of retaining the speaker’s gavel, and perhaps his seat, after November’s elections. Under the new maps, Cox’s own district shifts from 63 percent Republican to 53 percent Democratic.

Perhaps the GOP will make these calculations as it determines whether to pursue a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission. It has to decide this month, while the legislature is in session. If it doesn’t lay the groundwork for a fair process – a constitutional amendment requires passage in consecutive legislative sessions with an intervening election and then voter approval on a general election ballot – it’s likely to face Democratic majorities, backed by a Democratic governor, drawing new maps in 2021.

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