Benjamin Franklin once observed that the only certain things in life are death and taxes. Here’s one more: Next year, prompted by the census results, we’ll get new legislative lines for General Assembly and congressional districts.
We don’t know yet who will be drawing those lines. That depends on what Virginia voters decide about the proposed constitutional amendment on this fall’s ballot. If the amendment passes, there’ll be a bipartisan redistricting commission that will force a collaboration between Democrats and Republicans. If it fails, the Democrats, who now control the General Assembly, will have a free hand.
Regardless of who redraws the lines, it’s not too early to start asking some questions — and expressing some preferences. Here are some of the bigger ones for this part of the state, and Franklin County in particular:
1. How much will the 9th Congressional District have to grow — and where? Most times Southwest Virginia is the last place that Richmond thinks about. With congressional redistricting it has to be the first. That’s because of the triangular way in which Virginia is shaped. The 9th District can’t expand into Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia or North Carolina — and the options on where it can grow in Virginia are pretty limited, too. There’s no doubt that the 9th will have to expand. The 2010 census counted 8,001,024 Virginians. Last year the census estimated Virginia’s population at 8,535,519 and will no doubt count more this year. Virginia is not expected to gain a new congressional seat, so that means a congressional district that in 2010 covered 727,365 people will have to become a congressional district with at least 775,956 people. That means the 9th will have to pick up at least 48,591 people. The problem is that all the localities in the 9th west of the New River have lost population — at least 26,480, according to the latest estimates. So that really means the 9th will have to pick up 75,071 people.
Where can mapmakers go to add 75,071 people to the 9th? That’s where things get tricky. The 9th already includes Covington and Alleghany County — it could reach out to pick up Botetourt County, Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista, and at 69,880 people would still be short. The 9th currently includes Martinsville and part of Henry County. It could add the rest but would still need, say, all of Franklin County. Or the 9th, which already covers Salem and part of Roanoke County, could gobble up even more of Roanoke County and maybe even parts of the city. That starts to raise a question: Rather than extend the 9th in long tendrils north into the Shenandoah Valley or east into Southside, should it just swallow the Roanoke Valley whole? That would give the 9th more than enough people, which means places like the Alleghany Highlands and Martinsville/Henry County could be reassigned to other districts.
Geographically, there’s a lot of appeal to this solution. It’s simple and it’s compact. On the other hand, it would fundamentally change the character of the 9th District. Is that such a good idea? Right now most of the 9th is rural. Add the whole Roanoke Valley into the 9th and suddenly a metro area becomes the district’s anchor. Adding Roanoke to the 9th District dilutes the voice of rural voters. If you’re a voter in rural Southwest Virginia, you might think you have more in common with voters in Southside Virginia than in the Roanoke Valley. At some point, mapmakers might have no realistic choice but to put all of the Roanoke Valley into the 9th, but will that be in 2021?
2. Should the 5th District contain more or less of Southside Virginia? Whatever decisions are made about the 9th are connected to the 5th and 6th (and other districts in turn). The 5th once was almost overwhelmingly a Southside district. Population shifts have changed that. Now the 5th stretches all the way to the outer edges of the Northern Virginia — and its biggest population center is Charlottesville/Albemarle County. In fact, some 41% of the district’s voters are from Nelson County north, meaning outside the historic definition of Southside. If the 9th District expands further into Southside (as opposed to taking in the Roanoke Valley), then the 5th will become even less of a Southside district. Would it be better to draw as much of Southwest and Southside as possible into a single, rural-based district? Say, for instance, don’t take the 9th District north of Wythe County and instead stretch it along U.S. 58 to Danville? Or would it better to offer up the Roanoke Valley as a population sacrifice to the 9th and then try to make the 5th as pure a Southside district as possible? For instance, should it lose all the counties north of the James River and move east to subsume parts of the 4th District, which now includes the rural areas south of Richmond and goes east to Chesapeake? Put another way, is Danville better served by being in a district with Charlottesville (as it is now) or Southwest Virginia (as it could be under one scenario) or Suffolk (as it could be under another)? Likewise, is Lynchburg better served by being in a district with Roanoke (as it is now) or in a district with either Charlottesville or Danville or potentially both? That brings us to …
3. Should the Shenandoah Valley be connected to Roanoke, Charlottesville or Northern Virginia? This is the 6th District question. In the 1960s, the Shenandoah Valley was in a district almost to itself. Over the years, it had to grow. In the 1970s, it was in a district that stretched to outer suburbs of both Richmond and Northern Virginia. Now most of it’s in the 6th District, which runs from Roanoke to Front Royal. In many ways, this is the most geographically sensible district of all — it’s basically an I-81 district, with a leg along U.S. 460 to Lynchburg. That will have to change. But how? If most of the Roanoke Valley stays in the 6th, that will require fewer adjustments than if Roanoke gets pulled into the 9th. Is it better to align the Shenandoah Valley with the Roanoke Valley or Charlottesville — and potentially parts of the urban crescent?
We pose these questions without regard to the partisan politics involved — which configurations might help or hurt the chances of electing Democrats or Republicans. How much weight the politics play depends partly on what voters decide about Amendment One. Either way, though, these are some of the questions that will arise.
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