Vote For Jerry Mandering?

Image from OneVirginia2021

Every ten years, Virginia goes through a process of redistricting based on the results of the latest U.S. Census.  The goal is to create legislative districts for both the General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives that are relatively equal in population.  Unfortunately, often times district are drawn in such a way to aid or hinder the reelection of incumbent politicians, enhance or dilute the voting strength of minority groups, or draw districts that virtually guarantee the victory of a political party.  This sort of behavior is called gerrymandering, named after former Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry.

During the last redistricting following the 2010 census, as the Republicans controlled the House of Delegates and the Democrats controlled the Virginia Senate, each group drew some rather oddly shaped parcels of land in an attempt to maintain or enhance control of their respective bodies.  However, when the Republicans later gained the majority in the Senate, some called for new districts to be drawn prior to the next census.  Although I’m not a fan of Speaker of the House of Delegates Howell, fortunately, he declared such an attempt to re-gerrymander the state at that time as improper and wouldn’t let it proceed.

After the 2020 census, Virginia lawmakers will once again redraw our districts. and, barring some surprise, the Republicans will have control of both of the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate.  However, the House of Delegates map, the Virginia Senate map, and the House of Representatives map will all have to be approved or vetoed by the governor.

So far, conservatives in Virginia don’t have a whole lot to be excited about with the candidacy of the Republican nominee Ed Gillespie.  However, last month one of my fellow activists announced that he would be supporting Gillespie simply due to the issue of redistricting.  As he explained, “Whoever is elected governor in November will be signing the redistricting bill this next time. As fast as Virginia is going blue, it is imperative that that person be a Republican. That buys us ten more years before the Democrats can gerrymander the districts in the legislature. If you don’t think that matters, you aren’t paying attention.”

Although couched in anti-gerrymandering rhetoric, given the current makeup of the General Assembly, it is highly improbable that the Democrats will end up drawing the maps in 2021.  The Republicans presently enjoy a slim control in the Virginia Senate and a massive 66-34 majority in the House of Delegates.

He goes on to add, “I have plenty of reasons not to trust most Republicans for their principles.  But one thing a Republican Governor assuredly will do is sign a Republican-friendly redistricting bill.”  What the argument here is that we need to elect a Republican governor so that the Republicans can gerrymander the state after the next census to forestall an increasingly Democratic-leaning state from representing the will of the citizens of Virginia by electing more Democrats.  Doesn’t it seem odd that Republicans control the state government even though every Democrat has won the statewide vote since the 2009 elections?  Could gerrymandering be one of the reasons why?

Imagine for a moment if the roles were reversed if the Democratic Party controlled the General Assembly and sought to suppress the Republican vote.  Wouldn’t these very same activists be outraged, declaring that such a move was undemocratic and an affront to the principles of our republican form of government?  Shouldn’t we promote a system where voters get to choose their elected officials rather than elected officials choosing their pool of voters who they know will vote for them year after year regardless of their principles or job performance?

Until 1996, the Democratic Party controlled both houses of the Virginia General Assembly nearly uninterrupted for a hundred years.  During that period, how often did they use gerrymandering to thwart the shifting attitudes of Virginians who longed for a government not under single party rule?  Wouldn’t any advocate of liberty and personal responsibility be horrified if our elections were manipulated in such a fashion?  Or would they be okay with this plan so long as it was “their guys” reaping the political benefit?  I can’t speak for anyone else, but after 2021 redistricting I don’t want a Republican-friendly map, a Democratic-friendly map, or any map that treats Virginia as a pie to be carved up for the benefit of a political group.  Preventing gerrymandering might be an argument in favor of a government divided between two or more political parties.  Don’t we want a governor that will oppose partisan redistricting, not one who is aiding and abetting in it?

It is my sincere hope that all three of the candidates for governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, Libertarian Cliff Hyra, and Republican Ed Gillespie, will pledge to oppose any and all partisan redistricting, instead working to make sure that all districts are as compact as possible, cutting across few county and city lines so that the will of Virginia’s citizens can be more accurately reflected in our state government and elections can be fairer and maybe even competitive.  If a candidate refuses, he shouldn’t be considered an acceptable option for governor.  Don’t vote for a candidate who is good friends with Jerry Mandering!

For more information, check out this video from One Virginia 2021.

Rotten in Rockingham

Continuing our series on redistricting, I’d like to focus on the likely new boundaries for the lower house of the  Virginia General Assembly, the House of Delegates.  In today’s segment, we will be looking at my home past and present, the city of Harrisonburg and the surrounding county of Rockingham.

The city of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County in western Virginia

The first question we ought to ask is, how are the House of Delegates districts currently drawn?  Well, as of the last Census, they looked as follows:

As you can see, the 26th district (represented by Del. Tony Wilt of Broadway which is a town in Rockingham) encompasses the city and the northern half of the county.  The rest is split between the 20th (represented by Del. Dickie Bell of Staunton city), the 25th (represented by Del. Steve Landes of Weyers Cave, a town in Augusta County), and the 15th (represented by Del. Todd Gilbert of Mt. Jackson, a town in Shenandoah County).

Here’s a modest redistricting proposal.   Because Harrisonburg has a greater population density than the surrounding county, both Harrisonburg and Rockingham County could be represented by two delegates assuming one collected the pieces from the 20th, 25th, and 15th.  Although I believe that all four delegates have done a good job representing our shared Valley values, wouldn’t it make more sense to shave that number to two (or three depending on how the lines break)?  Doesn’t it seem logical to have Rockingham County voters represented by, oh I don’t know, a citizen from Rockingham County?  Instead we have only one Rockingham resident Delegate, as listed above, the rest are from Staunton, Augusta, and Shenandoah.  Nevertheless, even if they aren’t all from Rockingham or Harrisonburg, at least they are all from the Shenandoah Valley.

So what fate will redistricting have on Rockingham County?  The most likely outcome, offered by Delegate Chris Jones of Suffolk and passed by the Virginia Senate looks like this:

Del. Jones' Plan

Disappointingly, this map still quarters Rockingham County between four seats.  Like before, the 26th comprises the bulk while the remainder is divvied up between the 15th, the 25th, and a surprising newcomer, the 58th.  As you might notice, the 25th takes an ugly jut through southwest Rockingham County as it swallows up territory formerly in the 20th.  Traveling south and east we see that both the 20th and 25th districts are both heavily gerrymandered under this plan.

Regarding the 25th, does anyone else see a problem with a house district that goes from the West Virginia border to the outskirts of the city of Charlottesville around 50 miles away?  Can you honestly tell me that the citizens of Rockingham have much in common with those living in the suburbs of Charlottesville?  Having personally lived in both localities, I can assure you that they are as similar as night and day.

And what of this 58th district?  That seat is currently held by Delegate Rob Bell of Charlottesville.  Again, I have no complaints against this Del. Bell, but if Rockingham residents can’t be represented by their neighbors shouldn’t they at least be represented by folks in the culturally connected Valley?  Guess what citizens of Rockingham!  In order to visit the office of your new delegate, you’ll have to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains, travel through Greene County and then into Albemarle County.  For some of you, that likely means a forty-five minute drive.  Good luck with that.

All of this discussion begs the question, why is Rockingham split as it is?  Well, both Rockingham County and Augusta County to the south are some of the two most reliably Republican voting areas of the state.  Think back to 2008 when Jim Gilmore was absolutely destroyed in the race for U.S. Senate.  What were two of the measly six localities he won?  Rockingham and Augusta.

2008 Virginia Senate Race

So why has Rockingham County swapped one Delegate Bell (Dickie) for another (Rob)?  The answer may be seniority.  After all, any Republican politician would love to have some rich conservative Rockingham soil in his or her district.  Given that Del. Bell of Charlottesville has been in office for eight more years than Del. Bell of Staunton, I’m guessing padding his district is of greater importance to Del. Jones and whoever else had a hand in drawing this map.  All the while, the voters of Rockingham are mere pawns in this political horse swap.

If for no other reason than for the sake of my friends and family who are spread around Rockingham County, I hope this plan fails.  Sure, it helps conservative Republicans, which is desirable for those who share my ideology, but it does so at the unacceptable expense of undermining our political process.  Rockingham County is more than just a wheel of cheese to be sliced up as is politically convenient.

Anyway, the take home point is this:  For gerrymandering pure and simple this plan ought to be rejected by the General Assembly, the Governor, and the courts.

Something is rotten in Rockingham.  I can’t be the only person who notices this truth!

Look At All The Funny Shapes!

As I continue my exploration into the world of gerrymandering, yesterday Virginia’s Division of Legislative Services released three suggested redistricting maps, one for the House of Delegates and two for the Virginia Senate.  In this article, we will be focusing on the Senate.

Here is our current map:

Current Map of Virginia Senate Districts

Is there significant gerrymandering in the system?  Absolutely.  Along the border with North Carolina, one can find bizarre images.  Going from west to east, something is a bit off with the 19th, 15th, and 18th districts.  And look at Creigh Deeds’ 25th.  It includes his home in Bath County next to the West Virginia border and then travels along a narrow corridor until it widens to pick up the liberal city of Charlottesville and the surrounding area about 100 miles away.  Is it only foolish hope to expect anything better?

Help is on the way!  As stated, there are two plans circulating, one Republican under Senator John Watkins from the 10th and one Democratic from Senator Janet Howell of the 32nd.  Let’s first tackle the Watkins plan.

Watkins Proposal

The first thing you might notice is that the number of your Senate district has likely changed.  I’m not sure why he would alter the numbering system.  It seems to me to be an unneeded annoyance.  More importantly, is there gerrymandering in the Watkins plan?  You bet!  First, he maintains a fair number of gerrymandered districts from the current map, such as the 37th.

The 37th (formerly numbered the 19th); with its trunk and reaching branches, it sort of looks like a tree.

Holy smokes!  A mushroom cloud!  Is someone launching nukes?  No, that’s only the proposed 18th district.

The 31st (formerly the 26th) may not seem too gerrymandered, but as a resident of the city of Harrisonburg, I can tell you that I’m not too happy about it.  If the district needed to grow, why wouldn’t it expand south to include most, if not all, of the remaining portion of Rockingham County?  Instead, it leaps over the Blue Ridge Mountains to pick up part of Culpeper County.  Why, oh, why?

Let’s move on to the Howell plan.  Is it better?

Howell Proposal

I’m grateful that Howell doesn’t modify the numbering scheme, but that alone doesn’t make it a worthy suggestion.

First off, you’ll note that Howell’s plan retains the heavily gerrymandered 25th.  In addition, sort of like the proposed 31st under Watkins, the 24th district sneaks across the Blue Ridge to include part of Culpeper County.  But there are other offending districts, too.

What’s going between the 20th and the 15th?  I used to draw similar shapes when I was bored in school.  What is the conversation here?  We need the city of Danville and the eastern part of Pittsylvania County in the 20th.  What about the western portion?  Stick it in the 15th!  While we are at it, let’s give the 15th a nice new hat by including Amherst County too.  And how much, if any, of the 19th district is within it’s current borders?

If you draw an eye around Lazy Oak Corner, one can easily see the 18th district as a monster looking to consume the western half of the 13th.  Just plain ugly.

I’d include more maps, but with each new image WordPress is taking more and more time to upload them.  Instead, I invite you to explore the redistricting website yourself. Chances are, you’ll have to download a new plugin to make the site work.

You should note that I haven’t even begun to consider party gains under these two proposals.  Nevertheless, I’d wager that the Watkins plan will result in more Republican victories while the Howell proposal will do likewise for the Democrats.  Both have their share of flaws and obvious gerrymandering and should be rejected…or at least heavily modified.  At the end of the day, I hope that the General Assembly refuses both of these plans and draws compact districts with not quite so many funny shapes.

The ReDistricting Game

From the folks at the USC Annenberg Center comes The ReDistricting Game!  If you haven’t had a chance to try it, you really should give it a whirl.  Take the role of an “independent” advisor as you carve up districts to benefit various political parties and protect or even destroy incumbents.  Dilute or over-inflate the voting strength of those Republicans, Democrats, or minorities by putting them in a single district.  Better yet, thinly spread them across many districts to make sure that they have no voice in the government.  Compactness?  Who needs it?  Fair elections?  Bah, let’s make sure elections are decided before they even take place!

Here are a couple of screen shots from the program:

Hmm...the 3rd district looks a little gerrymandered. I bet we can do better.
Are these new districts fair, gerrymandered, or a tribute to modern art? You decide. But hey, the GOP should be able to easily win the 4th district as a result.

Play the game now and I’m sure you’ll gerrymander up some fun!*

* Warning:  Participating this game may lead to anger, discontent, and disillusionment with the redistricting process and the government in general.  Game is for entertainment purposes only and any schemes it suggests are not intended for use in any real world scenarios.  Many will play.  Only voters of the right party affiliation/race/religion/etc. will win.  If you can’t tell, neither this program nor the author of this blog supports gerrymandering.  If  you suspect an elected official has developed an addiction to gerrymandering seek the help of your state representatives or the court system.  Gerrymandering left untreated can lead to disenfranchisement, career politicians, and increased voter apathy.  Although The ReDistricting Game by itself will not eliminate gerrymandering, combined with a diet of healthy education and regular political exercise, the problem can minimized.  Use only as directed.

The Fine Art of Gerrymandering

There has been a lot of talk about redistricting here in Virginia lately.  Virginia has eleven congressmen so the big question is, how should their districts be divided up?  The first thing we should consider is how the districts looked prior to redistricting.

Virginia Congressional Districts as of 2010

These boundaries were drawn after the 2000 Census.  Before we get started, I feel that I need to explain the word gerrymander. defines the term as, “the dividing of a state, county, etc., into election districts so as to give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible.”  In addition, districts should be compact and contiguous.  So, with those thoughts, do you see any gerrymandering in our current map?  I do.

The first area I’d like to focus on is the northern portion of the 9th Congressional district.

Virginia's 9th Congressional District

See anything odd here?  For the most part, the 9th is pretty compact, containing all of southwest Virginia.  But toward the northeast fringe, you notice it takes an odd shape to encompass the lower half of Alleghany County.  This distortion is most pronounced when you also look at the 6th.

Virginia's 6th Congressional District

Now what’s so special about the southern half of Alleghany County?  I can find nothing about the county itself, but within this area is the city of Covington.  Although the city of Covington is not a large place, the citizens typically vote far more Democratic than the surrounding areas.  For example, according to the State Board of Elections in 2008 while 53% of Virginians voted for Barack Obama 55% of voters in Covington voted for him.  Big deal you might say.  It is only two percent.  However, when we compare Covington to the surrounding localities, you do notice a significant difference.  Obama only received 48% of the vote in Alleghany (surrounding the city), 43% of the vote in Bath County (to the north), 43% of the vote in Rockbridge County (to the east), 33% of the vote in Craig County (to the south), and 33% of the vote in Botetourt County (in the southeast).  Of course many cities follow this trend.  So why did they draw the lines to include Covington in the 9th?  Well, until the last election, Rich Boucher, a Democrat, was the representative of the 9th.  So, in order to improve his reelection chances as well as to move some Democratic voters out of the otherwise conservative 6th district, the bizarre looking lines were drawn this way.

Now by themselves, the roughly 2,300 voters of Covington do not decide an election.  However, when combined with other similarly Democratic localities spread over more than two hundred miles, they do make an impact.  Even though Boucher lost in 2010 by about 9,000 votes, can you name at least one of the nine localities he won?  Anyone?  That’s right.  Covington.  The main purpose of gerrymandering is to benefit one or more parties (in this case the incumbents at the expense of other party challengers).  Now that Boucher is gone, I hope the Covington enclave will disappear.

However, I can find no clearer example of gerrymandering in Virginia then the 3rd Congressional district.  Look at this monster.

Virginia's 3rd Congressional District

Most of these localities don’t even share a common border unless you include the James River.  Now maybe you could argue that communities along the James River share a common interest, but then why would you exclude the area in between Charles City County and Newport News in the north (James City County) and the area between Surry County and Portsmouth City (Isle of Wight County and Suffolk City)?  You also miss a big chunk of the city of Newport News!  Unfortunately, there is only one ugly answer;  racism.

Back in 1993, the Justice Department insisted that the state of Virginia create a Congressional district that encompasses a majority of minority citizens (in this case black people) with the presumption that these citizens would elect a representative of this race.  Well, the plan worked and as of the 1993 election, that area has been represented by Rep. Bobby Scott.  It makes no sense to me.  In order to end discrimination we must discriminate?  What if a district was created specifically to ensure a white representative?  Would that not be equally as racist?  What is the underlying message here?  Racism is OK so long as it promotes the interest of some minority group?  What a load of crap.  This section of the Voting Rights Act has long since passed its useful purpose.  Thank goodness President George W. Bush renewed the act in 2006.  Good to see he had a strong grasp of federalism and the limited scope of federal power…oh wait.

Moving on, in the last couple of days I’ve seen two maps circulating regarding potential redistricting plans both by David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report on his twitter feed.  The first can also be found in an article by Shaun Kenney over at Bearing Drift.  Please keep in mind that I am not trying to be critical of Wasserman as he is just offering hypothetical outcomes.

Just a few comments about this plan.  First of all, the 3rd is gerrymandered just as it has been.  Now maybe, due to federal law, we have to have a racially mandated district, but I would certainly challenge that assertion in court.  At the very least, put all of Newport News in the same district!  Second, fortunately the whole Covington gerrymander issue has been resolved.  Lastly, look at the 11th and the 5th Districts!  The 11th is very ugly as it reaches around northern Virginia, picking up pockets of Democratic voters.  Surely that district could be drawn in such a way that it makes gerrymandering look far less obvious.  And then we have the 5th.  Could this district be one of the most geographically elongated in the nation, going from the North Carolina border to one county away from Maryland?  Have most people in Fauquier County ever been to Hailfax County, much less know where it is?  You can’t honestly tell me that they share a whole lot of similar concerns.  From what I hear, this plan mainly serves to enhance the reelection chances of all of the current Representatives.  If each Rep. is secure in his district, what is the point of elections?  In Soviet Russia elections were not contested.  Do we want such a stagnant outcome here?  For the handful of reasons listed above, the Virginia legislature must reject this map.

Let’s look at the next map.

This map assumes that the Department of Justice will require Virginia to create another majority minority district.  In this case, it would be the 4th.  As you can see, this new 4th would  pickup a chunk of the city of Richmond and then stretch along the North Carolina border until reaching the city of Danville.  Of course you could not draw a straight line from Richmond to Danville in this district as it excludes most of Chesterfield and Dinwiddie, both very strongly Republican areas.  Actually, under this plan all you have to do is look at many of the areas in which Representative Forbes (the current legislator) did the best in 2010 (Powhatan 81%, Amelia 71%, half of Isle of Wight 69%, Chesterfield 64%, Nottoway 63%, Dinwiddie 61%, etc) and remove them from the district.  Also, the 11th is just as ugly as it was before and now the 2nd looks horribly gerrymandered too as it wraps around the 3rd.  I have to give this plan a failing grade as well.

At the end of the day, it really shouldn’t be that hard.  Although it may be nothing more than a idealistic dream, I really hope that the General Assembly will create non-gerrymandered compact districts based upon regional similarities and concerns.  When you consider political parties, race, or protecting incumbent candidates, you really undermine the whole idea of free and fair elections in the first place.  Maybe we should revert to how we briefly selected candidates back in 1933 where they were all elected at large.  No threat of gerrymandering there.  Heck, give me a map of Virginia, a pen, and the relevant census data and I’ll create a map for you that looks a whole lot better than any of the current proposals floating about or what we have now.

Illinois 4th Congressional District

Or maybe you’d prefer a few more bizarre districts like this one?  It is like a Rorschach inkblot.  What do I see?  Deception, corruption, and maybe a set of sideways earmuffs.  Ah, the fine art of gerrymandering!