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Editorial: Four questions for next year's legislative mapmakers

Editorial: Four questions for next year's legislative mapmakers

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Now that we know who will be drawing new legislative lines in Virginia — a bipartisan commission, courtesy of the constitutional amendment that voters approved Nov. 3 — let’s turn our attention to some of the questions that will drive that mapmaking.

Before the election, we posed similar questions about the congressional districts. For instance: The 9th District will have to expand. Should it take in all of the Roanoke Valley? That would be simple and produce a compact district. It also would dramatically dilute the rural vote in that district. Would the interests of rural voters be better served by a more odd-shaped district that brings in more of rural Southside?

We find similar questions when we look at some of the questions that map-makers will have to answer when they draw new General Assembly districts in this part of Virginia.

1. Should Roanoke and Roanoke County be in the same state Senate district? Through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, they were. Because the city votes strongly Democratic and the county votes strongly Republican, that produced a series of competitive elections that swung back and forth between the two parties. Democrat William Hopkins held the seat until 1979, when he was upset by Republican Ray Garland, who held the seat until he was defeated by Democrat Granger Macfarlane in 1983. He served two terms until he lost to Republican Brandon Bell in 1991, who, in turn, lost to Democrat John Edwards in 1995, who fended off a strong Republican challenge in 1999. After the 2001 redistricting, the district was redrawn to carve off much of Roanoke County and instead connect Roanoke with Democratic-voting Blacksburg. Roanoke County, in turn, became part of a district whose shape has changed over the years but now runs from Carroll County to Bedford County — and includes the Republican-voting parts of Montgomery County. That raises another question:

2. Should Blacksburg and Christiansburg be in the same state Senate district? They are much like Roanoke and Roanoke County: Blacksburg votes Democratic; Christiansburg votes Republican. In the ’70s and ’80s, all of Montgomery County was in the same state Senate district — along with adjacent localities in the New River Valley. The result was some competitive elections — most famously the 1979 race where Democrat Madison Marye defeated Republican Ed Stone by just nine votes. Now, as we’ve seen, Montgomery County is split — its Democratic precincts joined with Democratic-voting Roanoke, its Republican precincts with much of Roanoke County and other Republican-voting counties. Now, here’s where we get to pose some philosophical questions.

3. What factors should drive the mapmaking in the Roanoke and New River valleys? If the goal is produce compact districts, then, yes, Roanoke and Roanoke County should be in the same district and Montgomery County shouldn’t be split in two. If the goal is to produce competitive districts, those compact districts would certainly do it. (Speaking of competitive, putting Roanoke and Roanoke County in the same district would put two incumbents — Democrat John Edwards and Republican David Suetterlein — in the same district.) Should that be the goal, though? There’s an argument to be made that because the economies of the Roanoke and New River valley are becoming intertwined, their legislative districts should be, as well. By that standard, the valleys should be sliced so that instead of a Roanoke Valley district and a New River Valley district, both districts should contain some of each. Until now, that’s worked out to the Roanoke Valley’s advantage — since both Edwards and Suetterlein are in the Roanoke Valley. What would Roanoke or Roanoke County voters think if, at some point in the future, their senator lived in the New River Valley? Would they feel they had lost representation? How does Montgomery County feel now being represented by senators who don’t live in the New River Valley? Would one who lives in the New River Valley be better than two who don’t?

Now for another wrinkle: What if that one is from the opposite party of how you vote? Carving up the Roanoke and New River valleys to produce a Democratic district and a Republican district may seem a textbook case of gerrymandering. Or is it actually a textbook case of making sure diverse communities are sufficiently represented? The two valleys are politically divided — the current mapmaking makes sure their Senate delegation is, as well. Imagine this alternative: A single seat in the Roanoke Valley and a single seat in the New River Valley — and the same party won both, by narrow margins. That means the same party would represent two communities that we know have sharp political splits. Is that just tough luck for the losers? Or does it leave such a large number of voters unrepresented by their preferred party that it’s not good for democracy? Here’s where both Democrats and Republicans might hedge their bets and opt for two districts that straddle the two valleys — one that leans Democratic, one that leans Republican.

4. Should Roanoke and Lynchburg be in the same district? At first glance the answer to this is obviously “no.” The answer may still be “no” at second glance, as well. But this is just a different version of the Roanoke-New River valleys question. The Roanoke and Lynchburg economies aren’t nearly as connected as the Roanoke and New River valleys are. They have different airports, for instance, and different universities powering their economies. But they don’t exist in total isolation. Four years ago the U.S. Census Bureau reported that more people commute from Lynchburg to Roanoke than from the New River Valley to Roanoke. Meanwhile, almost as many people commute from Roanoke to Lynchburg as commute from Roanoke to New River. These are curious economic “facts on the ground.” Should our politics reflect that? The district represent by state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, stretches all the way to Craig County. At the time it was drawn, that was a bit of Democratic gerrymandering to put Newman and another Republican legislator in the same district. Did Democrats, up to nefarious politics, actually stumble onto something futuristic? Likewise, the district held by Del. Terry Austin, R-Buchanan, runs from Forest to Alleghany County. Do we need more like that — or fewer?

These are some of the questions next year’s mapmakers will have to answer.

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