Q&A: Breaking Down Virginia’s Fraught Redistricting Process

state of virginia with two paint rollers adding paint onto VA.  One roller is blue and one roller is red

Photo illustration by Ziniu Chen, University Communications

In politics, it feels like the lofty promises and plans that accompany elections all too often fail or sometimes vanish entirely.

At present, the Virginia Redistricting Commission looks like it might be facing such a fate.

Created by a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in the 2020 election, the Virginia Redistricting Commission is tasked with drawing the district lines for Virginia’s 11 U.S. House of Representatives seats, as well as the Virginia General Assembly. District lines are reviewed and redrawn every 10 years, following the completion of the U.S. Census.

In the past, the General Assembly, like many state legislatures, redrew and voted on district lines. This frequently generated controversy and partisan bickering as the majority party controlled the process and thus the geography and makeup of the districts. UVA Today recently explored the broader redistricting process.

Recently, a number of states have established redistricting commissions in an effort to reduce the partisanship and rancor that almost inevitably accompanies this process. The Virginia Redistricting Commission emerged out of the growing demand for fair and inclusive redistricting. While the formation and organization of the commission appears straightforward, its actual work has proven far more challenging.

UVA Today chatted with Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter based at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, to learn more about the Virginia Redistricting Commission and its ongoing work. Kondik studies and analyzes redistricting and recently released a new book, “The Long Red Thread: How Democratic Dominance Gave Way to Republican Advantage in US House Elections.”

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Q. Can you explain how redistricting typically works?

A. In most states, redistricting for Congress and for state legislatures is still handled in what I’ll call the “old-fashioned” way. The state legislature draws the lines, and the governor can either sign or veto them. This sets up a situation where, if one party controls both the state legislature and the governorship, the members of that party can draw lines that favor them and disfavor the other party.

In states where there is divided control of state government, the two parties have to come to some sort of compromise, although often they don’t, which leads to redistricting being decided by the courts.

A growing number of states have created bipartisan or independent redistricting commissions, which draw the lines outside of the usual method and, at least hypothetically, aren’t as inclined to favor one party over the other. We broke down how the states redistrict in the first part of our congressional redistricting series earlier this year.

We also have been analyzing new congressional maps as they’ve been finalized. Twenty of the 44 states with more than one congressional district have gone through their redistricting process so far.

Q. How do redistricting commissions typically operate?

A. There are different kinds of commissions in different states. Many do not include elected officials, although the one in Virginia that failed to produce maps had a mix of citizens and legislators. Sometimes they utilize a tiebreaking member, such as commissions in Arizona (which does not include politicians) and New Jersey (which does include politicians).

Kyle Kondik Headshot

Kyle Kondik is the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter based at UVA’s Center for Politics. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

There are 10 states that now have commissions charged with drawing congressional districts – most of these states are out West, the region that historically has been on the cutting edge of political reform movements. None of the commissions are exactly the same, but they share a similar intent – taking the hard partisan edge off of redistricting.

Q. What is happening in Virginia right now related to redistricting?

A. The state legislature gave voters the opportunity to create a redistricting commission that would draw both state legislative and congressional district lines. Close to two-thirds of the electorate voted last November in favor of a state constitutional amendment to create the commission. Virginia’s commission is composed of eight members of the state legislature and eight citizens, who are charged with drawing the district lines. The General Assembly would then vote on the maps, but legislators could only vote to approve or reject the maps, not change them (the governor is not involved). If this process fails, the Supreme Court of Virginia is entrusted with drawing the maps.

The commission failed to produce maps, and so the task has fallen to the state Supreme Court. The court picked two “special masters,” each selected from lists submitted by state Democrats and state Republicans, to draw the maps. The court picked political scientist Bernard Grofman from the Democratic list and political analyst Sean Trende from the Republican list. I personally have a lot of respect for both Grofman and Trende.

Q. What’s next in Virginia when it comes to redistricting?

A. Grofman and Trende released their draft maps last week. The court held a virtual public hearing on the maps to solicit feedback on Wednesday, with another scheduled for Friday, and interested parties can continue to submit comments until Monday at 1 p.m. The court and its special masters will then finalize the map.

This is a new process, so it’s hard to say whether the draft maps will change much, if at all, before the court adopts them.

With redistricting, there is always the possibility of lawsuits, so there may end up being litigation even after the court approves the maps.

Q. What impact will this have on the 2022 midterm elections?

A. Democrats currently hold a 7-4 majority in the state’s U.S. House delegation, but two of the current districts are very competitive – U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria’s (D, VA-2) district in Hampton Roads and Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s (D, VA-7) district, which extends from the Richmond area into Central Virginia. The map makes Luria’s district even more competitive, while it effectively dismantles Spanberger’s district and relocates VA-7 to Northern Virginia.

The map makes other changes, including bringing the Northern Virginia-based VA-10, held by U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D), down to the fringes of Charlottesville and making it more competitive, but still Democratic-leaning. In the context of 2022 – which we and other experts expect to be a Republican-leaning election – Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold onto their 7-4 edge, with Luria’s seat most in danger of flipping to Republicans.  Republicans also could win the new VA-10 as well under the right circumstances. The other nine districts should elect five Democrats and four Republicans, at least in 2022 and likely into the future.

Probably the biggest criticism of the map was that it hurt the three women in the state’s congressional delegation by eliminating Spanberger’s district and weakening the Democratic performance in Wexton and Luria’s districts, while not really harming the state’s eight other incumbents (four Democrats and four Republicans, all of whom are men). However, the map also seems reflective of where Virginia is politically – which is that it is a state that is more Democratic than Republican, but where Republicans can win under the right circumstances, which we saw in the state elections last month.

Nationwide, Republicans need to win just five more seats than they won in 2020 to win the U.S. House of Representatives. VA-2 is going to be a real target for them, which was true both on the old map and the new one.

Meanwhile, on the state legislative side, elections are not scheduled to be held until 2023. However, it may be that legal action forces what would effectively be a special election for the House of Delegates in 2022, given that the House of Delegates elected in November were elected under the old district map. If that happens, Virginia could have House of Delegates elections in both 2022 and 2023 under the new district lines. Something similar happened in the early 1980s in Virginia.

Given that the majorities in both chambers are small – Republicans won a 52-48 edge in the House of Delegates last month, while Democrats hold a 21-19 edge in the state Senate – one would expect a competitive battle for each chamber the next time they are contested.

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Tim Robinson

University Communications