By Gus Cross
The winners of the Nov. 7 election will have a large impact on voting redistricting in 2021.
Virginia is in the 10 states for the having the least compact voting districts, according to a report by Redistricting the Nation. The last time Virginia voting districts were redrawn was in 2011, following the 2010 census. The redrawn districts were done in such a way that there has been little competition from an opposing party for any seat up for election in the Virginia General Assembly ever since.
“If you want to see what Democrats look like when they gerrymander, look up north to Maryland. If you want to see what Republicans look like when they gerrymander, look down south to South Carolina,” said Brian Cannon, who is the Executive Director of OneVirginia2021. “If you want to see what a bi-partisan gerrymander looks like, Virginia is that.”
Trying to make it fair and transparent
OneVirginia2021 is a Richmond-based organization that, according to its website, advocates for “a fair and transparent process in drawing political districts after the 2020 census.” The organization began in 2014 when several Virginians saw how gerrymandered their state was. Gerrymandering is the manipulation of district lines in order to favor one group or candidate over another. Cannon sees the problem of district drawing not as a partisan issue but one that comes from the incumbents. In 2013, the first election year in Virginia after districts were redrawn in 2011, only 19 incumbents in the House of Delegates faced a major challenge from the opposite party. Only two seats saw changes in their political parties. Because of this result, Cannon refers to the redistricting in 2011 as the “incumbent protection plan of 2011.”
Following the 2020 census, the Virginia General Assembly will redraw the voting districts to incorporate changes in population and demographics. The new map will then go to the governor to either approve or veto.
Democratic Governor candidate Ralph Northam has said he is for redistricting reform and will most likely veto any piece of legislation that presents “unfair” voting districts. Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate, has openly said he is not opposed to districting reform but does not believe the political aspect can be taken out of the issue. The decisions of the next governor will set the stage for the following years of voting and will affect whether the voting districts remain uncompetitive.
For some, the lack of competition in Virginia’s voting districts creates a problem for the democratic system of government present in the United States and Virginia. According to Valentina Dimitrova-Grajzl and Chris Gavaler, the heads of 50 Ways Rockbridge’s Gerrymandering Committee, fairer and more competitive districts make politicians more responsible to their constituents.
“When you have gerrymandered districts, [politicians] don’t have to be accountable, [they] don’t have to show up to meetings with constituents, [they] don’t have to explain why [they] are voting one way or another, because you are not challenged in the next election” Dimitrova-Grajzl said.
A matter of degrees
With most of the controversial redistricting in Virginia taking place in more populated areas surrounding Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Norfolk, there are mixed opinions on how much gerrymandering is done in the western regions of Virginia and the Rockbridge County itself. According to Gavaler, the Shenandoah Valley is not a controversial area for redistricting because “we are not gerrymandered nearly to the degree we see elsewhere in the state.”
However, to Jay Clarke, the head of the Rockbridge County Democratic Committee, the Rockbridge area can be affected “tremendously” by redistricting. Clarke noted that the 24th Virginia House of Delegates District and the 6th Congressional District, both of which Rockbridge County, Lexington , and Buena Vista fall under, have been “gerrymandered severely.” Members of the Rockbridge Republican Party were not available for comment.
Despite difference in opinion on the extent of gerrymandering in the local area, the area is currently represented by both a Republican and Democrat in the Virginia General Assembly. The 25th State Senate District, which includes Highland, Bath, Alleghany, Rockbridge, Nelson and Albemarle counties is represented by Sen. Creigh Deeds (D). However, the 24th Virginia House of Delegates district, which includes Rockbridge, Bath, and parts of Augusta and Amherst counties, is represented by Republican Ben Cline. The split representation, along with the division of counties sharing the 25th State Senate and 24th House district, does cause concern among those advocating for fairer districts.
“In my mind… you don’t divide up counties unless you absolutely have to,” Gavaler said.
Gavaler talked more specifically to how the 24th House district includes part of Augusta County but excludes Staunton and similarly includes parts of Amherst County but excludes Lynchburg. He added these details are a “light issue” but said gerrymandering across the state affects local residents if it means there is not proper representation in the Virginia General Assembly.
To address this, groups like 50 Ways Rockbridge and OneVirginia2021 are working towards educating people both locally and statewide about the current problems with redistricting and how it affects them. Both groups say once people start listening to the issue, it is easier to get them involved in advocating for redistricting reform. But the current difficulty is getting people to listen.
“Folks want to make it a left or a right issue and this just isn’t,” Cannon said. “This is not a left-right issue, this is a right-wrong issue.”