By: Elizabeth Brightwell
My fiancé and I just became homeowners in Richmond, Virginia. Our small, Cape Cod is located on Patterson Avenue, a main thoroughfare for Richmonders in the Near West End. Our new neighborhood attracts many young people, some with children and most with dogs. Most of our neighbors lead a Richmond-centric life, sending their children to Richmond’s Mary Munford Elementary and spending weekends in the city.
Today, our home falls within Virginia House District 68. As the lines are drawn today, District 68 includes city neighborhoods around our home and across the James River, as well as a small slice of Henrico County, and a bigger section of Chesterfield County. In June 2018, a three-judge panel in Virginia’s Eastern District held that the lines for eleven Virginia House districts were racially gerrymandered and therefore, violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Instead of redrawing the districts themselves, however, the panel ordered the Virginia General Assembly to redraw the lines. Efforts to fix Richmond’s racial gerrymanders—Districts 63, 69, 70, 71, and 74—will necessarily affect the boundaries of District 68.
Both Democrats and Republicans have proposed multiple maps for the Virginia General Assembly’s consideration. For the purposes of this post, however, I will only consider one proposal from each party. Democrats claim that their proposed map draws districts that are “compact, contiguous, and respects communities of interest, while addressing the court’s ruling” in Bethune-Hill. Similarly, Republicans assert that one of their proposal “complies with the court order broadly and specifically and adheres to traditional redistricting criteria.”
When drawing districts for the Virginia House, legislators are required to draw compact, contiguous districts of nearly equal population that preserve communities of interest, and comply with the Voting Rights Act. Although the Democrats and Republicans both claim their maps satisfy these requirements, the lines that they have proposed are very different.
If the General Assembly adopts the Democratic proposal, our home will remain in District 68. Under this plan, boundaries of District 68 shift to exclude Henrico County, and include more neighborhoods south of the river, some in Richmond City and some in Chesterfield County. If the General Assembly adopts the Republican proposal, however, our home will become part of District 73. Under this plan, boundaries of District 73 will include a small portion of Richmond and will extend into Henrico County down Interstate 64 and along the river. The Democratic-proposed District 68 and the Republican-proposed District 73—both of which would include our home—cover different communities with different interests. Although both proposed districts are contiguous and relatively compact, how can they both respect communities of interest when they join such different populations? For example, many of the Henrico County residents in Republican-proposed District 73 are likely less concerned with issues affecting city residents (like public transportation and the city’s public schools), and more concerned with suburban priorities (like managing commercial development around the outskirts of the city). Although many of the Chesterfield County residents in Democratic-proposed District 68 likely also share suburban priorities, the proposed district includes far more city residents than Republican-proposed District 73, which would help to ensure the priorities of city residents do not take a back seat.
I can identify communities of interest in both the Democratic and Republican proposed districts. In Democratic-proposed District 68, residents of the western neighborhoods of Richmond City, most of whom are wealthy or upper middle class Caucasians, would vote with city and Chesterfield County dwellers across the river, many of whom are of similar means. Likewise, in Republican-proposed District 73, which is not separated by the river, residents of the western neighborhoods of Richmond City vote with Henrico County residents, many of whom are like-minded politically.
Because of how expansively “communities of interest” are defined—including “economic factors, social factors, cultural factors, geographic features, governmental jurisdictions and service delivery areas, political beliefs, voting trends, and incumbency considerations”—legislators can defend almost any proposal as “respecting communities of interest.” Although the criterion places some limits on potential district maps, I struggle to see how these limits demand any more than the requirements of compactness and contiguity already do; you can find a common thread sufficient to prove “respect for communities of interest” between most compact, contiguous areas.
Given all this, does respect for “communities of interest” guide Virginia’s redistricting process at all? The command for legislators to respect “communities of interest” is meant to protect voters. If a citizen’s vote is cast with members of their community, that citizen’s vote and their chance of electing a candidate who will represent the interests they share with their community are stronger. Perhaps Virginia defines “communities of interest” so broadly that these communities are too easy for legislators to “respect.”