Redistricting in Virginia

after the 2010 Census, the General Assembly drew new boundaries for the 11 districts for election to the US House of Representatives
after the 2010 Census, the General Assembly drew new boundaries for the 11 districts for election to the US House of Representatives
Source: US Geological Survey, National Atlas, Congressional Districts - 113th Congress

When Virginia voters elect their Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and two US senators in statewide elections, the entire state constitutes one election district. District boundaries are irrelevant as well for the election of the US president and vice-president every four years; Virginia's 13 Electoral College members are determined by which candidates win the majority of votes within the entire state.

District boundaries are critical when voters elect 11 representatives to serve in the US Congress, 140 officials who serve in the General Assembly, and roughly 3,000 local government officials in various cities and counties. Every 10 years after the Census is completed, boundaries are drawn for the US House of Representatives districts, 100 districts for the House of Delegates, 40 districts for the State Senate, and many magisterial districts (or wards in cities) for electing local officials.

The Constitution of Virginia gives the General Assembly great flexibility to define the boundaries for election districts, requiring only that:1

Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.

The governor has the authority to veto the law creating new boundaries for state and Federal elections, and the state legislature has never marshaled enough votes to over-ride a veto. If one party does not control the governorship, House of Delegates and State Senate, then the 140 members of the General Assembly and the governor must compromise.

The "contiguous and compact territory" requirement in the state constitution does not require that state/Federal election districts must align with city or county boundaries. Where the election district boundaries are drawn can dramatically affect the number of Democrats or Republicans who win election.

boundaries for House of Delegates districts 35, 27, and 67, drawn after the 2010 Census, meet the standard of contiguous and compact territory even though more-compact, more-contiguous polygons could have been defined
boundaries for House of Delegates districts 35, 27, and 67, drawn after the 2010 Census, meet the standard of "contiguous and compact territory" even though more-compact, more-contiguous polygons could have been defined
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Division of Legislative Services, Redistricting Plans - 2010

There has always been some "gerrymandering." That term honors Elbridge Gerry, who after the 1810 Census arranged for an election district boundary in Massachusetts with an unusual shape that resembled a salamander). Savvy politicians who understand geography, and particularly those able to apply Geographic Information System (GIS) technology effectively, can consciously include/exclude in a district the individual precincts with a traditional voting record.

Setting election district boundaries for state and Federal elections has always been controlled by the General Assembly. Each county, plus some special areas such as Norfolk and Williamsburg, elected members to the House of Burgesses in colonial times. County boundaries were used to define the election districts. Representation was not balanced by population; whether a county had a small or large population, it was entitled to elect two burgesses. Even the first meeting of the General Assembly in 1619, before county boundaries were created, consisted of two representatives from each populated area.

When Virginia passed its first constitution in 1776, the House of Burgesses was renamed the House of Delegates and each county continued to elect two delegates. A new State Senate was created, and for the first time the General Assembly created 24 electoral districts that included more than one county. Ratification of the US Constitution in 1788 required defining 10 districts to elect Virginia's first members of the US House of Representatives.

Establishing election district boundaries has always been a political process, not an analytical exercise based on just non-political criteria. The role of politics in defining districts was demonstrated during the October-November, 1788 General Assembly session, after ratification of the Constitution to create a new Federal government.

Patrick Henry successfully blocked efforts to choose James Madison as one of Virginia's first two Senators, shaped the boundaries of the Fifth Congressional District to limit his potential in the first election for the US House of Representatives in 1789, and ensured Madison must run in that district by requiring candidates to have lived in their district for twelve months previous to election.

The Fifth District included Orange County with James Madison's home, Montpelier. Henry and his Anti-Federalist allies ensured the district's boundaries excluded Fauquier County and included others that had many anti-Federalist voters. The votes in the June 1788 convention for/against ratification of the new Constitution had revealed who, like Henry, "smelled a rat" in creating a new central government that would limit the powers of the 13 separate states and might constrain individual liberties as well.

At the ratification convention, representatives from only two counties within the Fifth Congressional District (Orange and Albemarle) had voted to create the new Federal government with which Madison was closely associated. All representatives from Amherst, Fluvanna, Goochland, Culpeper, and Spotsylvania counties had voted against ratification, and Louisa County's representatives had split their vote. An 1880 biographer noted:2

Surely it was a rare bit of luck, in the case of Patrick Henry, that the wits of Virginia did not anticipate the wits of Massachusetts by describing this trick as 'henrymandering'

boundaries of the 5th Congressional District were designed by the Anti-Federalists in 1788 to exclude Fauquier County, in hopes of blocking the election of James Madison to the new US House of Representatives
boundaries of the 5th Congressional District were designed by the Anti-Federalists in 1788 to exclude Fauquier County, in hopes of blocking the election of James Madison to the new US House of Representatives
Map Source: Google Earth

Friends warned James Madison that he was at risk of losing the election. He needed to stop participating as a member of the Continental Congress, which was meeting in New York City, and return to Virginia in order to campaign in person against his opponent James Monroe. Madison replied that he would the decision to travel home after learning the boundaries of the Fifth Congressional District, even though he was suffering from painful hemorrhoids:3

When I see the counties with which Orange is associated, I shall perhaps be more able to form some estimates which should influence my determination. This information I hourly expect, and in case it should induce me to continue my course to Virginia, I shall leave this immediately, or at least as soon as I can bear the journey. I have for some time past been much indisposed with the piles.

Madison was effective in his campaign appearances, and his letters published by local newspapers reassured voters that he would seek amendments to the Constitution to ensure protection of individual rights. Patrick Henry's attempt to shape the decision by shaping the district failed, Madison was elected to serve the Fifth District, and he fulfilled his election promises by ensuring passage of ten amendments that are known today as the Bill of Rights.

Though the General Assembly declared independence from Great Britain and created a new form of government in 1776, the legislature did not alter the traditional pattern of domination by Tidewater representatives. Prior to 1776, Tidewater control was maintained by limiting the number of new counties that were created as population moved westward. Since each county elected two burgesses, having many counties in the east and fewer counties in the west ensured political power was retained.

Institutionalized discrimination against western voters continued as the boundaries of the first 24 State Senate districts were defined. A small number of western districts were created, and the imbalance in the population within eastern vs. western districts was ignored. As a result, a relatively small number of voters living east of the Fall Line retained political power.

In the first half of the 1800's, the legislature through the Bureau of Public Works directed most of the state's investment in transportation infrastructure (roads, canals, and railroads) to benefit eastern port cities. Western voters were unable to end the discrimination, even though they forced revisions in the state constitution in 1830 and 1850.

After the Civil War and the separation of the western counties to create the new state of Western Virginia, the sectional differences were less intense - but redistricting remained a key tool of concentrating/diffusing political power. As population increased in urban areas and manufacturing became a larger part of the Virginia economy, the legislature remained controlled by rural legislators focused on low taxes.

Funding increases for education, transportation, and other services provided by state government were limited. After every Census, the desires of the increasing population in the cities to expand government services were constrained by drawing state legislative district boundaries so rural counties always elected an effective majority to the General Assembly. The Byrd Organization may not have controlled a majority of voters, but through rural county courthouse cliques it did control a majority of elected legislators.

The 1964 decision of the US Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Sims, together with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, forced a dramatic break from traditional Virginia electoral procedures. The court forced states to draw new boundaries to apply the "one man-one vote" principle to state elections. Redistricting was required to ensure each person had equal representation in local elections for City/Town Councils and county Boards of Supervisors, plus the House of Delegates and State Senate.

Amherst County voted heavily for James Monroe as expected in the 1789 election for the Fifth Congressional District, but James Madison won over enough voters in Culpeper and Louisa counties to win
Amherst County voted heavily for James Monroe as expected in the 1789 election for the Fifth Congressional District, but James Madison won over enough voters in Culpeper and Louisa counties to win
Data Source: Thomas Rogers Hunter, The First Gerrymander?: Patrick Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, and Virginia's 1788 Congressional Districting (p.800)

the State Senate has 40 members, and the 40th (Senate) District stretches from Cumberland Gap to Mount Rogers
the State Senate has 40 members, and the 40th (Senate) District stretches from Cumberland Gap to Mount Rogers
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services, Current District Maps - State Senate District 40

the Virginia House of Delegates has 100 members and House District 1, like State Senate District 40, is located in southwestern Virginia
the Virginia House of Delegates has 100 members and House District 1, like State Senate District 40, is located in southwestern Virginia
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services, Current District Maps - House of Delegates District 1

The state legislature that determines the boundaries of political districts includes a changing mix of Republicans, Democrats, and occasionally Independents, but the General Assembly is always composed of 100% political incumbents.

The once-every-10-year process for drawing electoral district boundaries, after each census, allows the elected politicians in the General Assembly (and the governor) to choose their voters, before the voters choose the officials in the next election. Computerized assessment of voting patterns, housing patterns, and various socio-economic factors (such as percentage of students qualifying for a subsidize school lunch) make it more feasible every redistricting cycle to choose which party will win a particular district.

The successful politicians, the ones who got elected to the General Assembly/governor's office or who run the two dominant parties, control the redistricting process every decade. Those same 140 General Assembly politicians (and the governor) also revise voting districts of friends/allies in local magisterial districts in the counties across Virginia, local wards in the cities which elect by geographic units rather than "at large," and the 11 districts for the US House of Representatives. Gerrymandering is achieved by:

  1. analyzing computerized voting statistics to identify the precincts that tend to vote Democratic or Republican
  2. using GIS technology to concentrate the voters of the opposing party into a small number of districts, allowing a few districts to be won by the opposing party with large majorities
  3. using GIS technology to draw the boundaries of other districts to include a slight majority of supporters, maximizing the potential number of districts that could be won by the political party in control of the redistricting process

House of Delegates District 100 is located on the Eastern Shore
House of Delegates District 100 is located on the Eastern Shore
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services, Current District Maps - House of Delegates District 100

The House of Delegates and the State Senate, together with the governor, use the redistricting process to provide political advantage to the incumbents. District boundaries are carefully designed to exclude precincts with hostile voters and to include precincts with a high percentage of supporters. The redistricting process can create a "safe seat" for several election cycles before socio-economic trends, such as migration from urban areas into the suburbs, may alter the balance.

Drawing the boundaries involves assessing the strength of incumbents, and how much the entrenched incumbents can risk a loss of supporter-rich precincts. Candidates need only a plurality of the votes to win in each district. If you add up the votes from 100 House of Delegates districts statewide, the total could be close to 50-50. However, if 55 of your party's candidates win very close races, while the other party wins 45 seats in a landslide... your party would end up with clear control over the House of Delegates.

The 2014 primary election for the Seventh Congressional District showed that simple assessments of Republican vs. Democratic precincts is not sufficient. The Majority Leader of the Republican Party in the US House of Representatives, Rep. Eric Cantor, was defeated by a more-conservative Tea Party candidate despite raising $5 million for a campaign fund vs. his opponent's $200,000. It was the first time any Majority Leader was defeated in a primary.

As described by the Washington Post:4

When Virginia's districts were redrawn in 2010, the state’s legislature altered Cantor's district and removed some heavily Democratic precincts in the Richmond area. They swapped in heavily Republican New Kent County, east of the state capital.

Cantor supported the move, which was supposed to make his safe seat even safer from Democrats. But that was a miscalculation: Cantor had misjudged where his real threat would come from.

The Seventh District was a safe Republican seat after the 2011 redistricting, but the new voters added on the eastern edge were anti-establishment Republicans who voted the incumbent out of office. Cantor's position of power as Majority Leader within the hierarchy of the House of Representatives was a disadvantage, and the realignment of district boundaries backfired.

boundaries of the US House of Representatives Seventh Congressional District, represented by Rep. Eric Cantor, were redrawn in 2011 to add the conservative Republican voters in rural New Kent County
boundaries of the US House of Representatives Seventh Congressional District, represented by Rep. Eric Cantor, were redrawn in 2011 to add the conservative Republican voters in rural New Kent County
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services, Seventh Congressional District - Current

before the 2011 redistricting, New Kent County was in the Third Congressional District
before the 2011 redistricting, New Kent County was in the Third Congressional District
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services, Seventh Congressional District - 2010

Various independent and non-partisan groups can suggest boundaries and argue that hyper-partisan districts are the fundamental cause of government gridlock, but their recommendations are simply advisory. In 2011, the proposals of the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting, appointed by the governor, were ignored just as quickly as proposals made by various outside interest groups.

Proposals to create an independent panel to draw new election district boundaries after the 2020 Census were killed by the chair of the House of Delegates House Privileges and Elections Committee in the 2015 session of the General Assembly without a public vote. Frustrated advocates for independent redistricting in 2021 complained:5

The Privileges and Elections Committee surely is aptly named: Killing reform bills by denying them a hearing puts lawmakers' privileges ahead of elections.

A lobby group asserted that the boundaries of towns/cities/counties were ignored in the 2011 redistricting. Including an entire town/city/county in one legislative district would align a local jurisdiction's community of interest with the focus of legislators, but:6

Forty-six localities are split in the Virginia Senate district maps and 59 localities divided in the House of Delegates' maps.

However, the requirements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act must be considered, to avoid unfairly diluting the ability of voters belonging to a minority race. As described in one redistricting primer:7

Three techniques frequently used to dilute minority voting strength are "cracking," "stacking," and "packing."
"Cracking" refers to fragmenting concentrations of minority population and dispersing them among other districts to ensure that all districts are majority white.
"Stacking" refers to combining concentrations of minority population with greater concentrations of white population, again to ensure that districts are majority white.
"Packing" refers to concentrating as many minorities as possible in as few districts as possible to minimize the number of majority-minority districts.

In 1981, the redistricting process was unusually difficult. Virginia had been dominated by the Democratic Party since the 1890's, but Republicans were starting to gain ground in state elections. Mills Godwin had converted to the Republican Party and been elected again as governor in 1973, and fellow Republican John Dalton was elected to that office in 1977. Democrats still controlled the General Assembly, but after the 1980 Census had to eliminate multi-member districts to meet court requirements.

Drawing new boundaries that would preserve the election potential for all incumbents was not possible, and negotiations were complex. At one point, the House of Delegates approved a "fair and balanced" plan, but the map defined 101 districts - one too many. It took 14 different meetings before the House of Delegates and the State Senate reached final agreement.

In 1991, the General Assembly was still controlled by the Democrats. They created a redistricting map to extend that control by placing 18 House Republicans into nine districts.8

The post-1990 Census redistricting cycle revised the boundaries of the Third District for US House of Representatives to establish a "majority-minority" district, one where black voters were concentrated and likely to elect their preferred candidate. In the subsequent election, the voters of the district elected Virginia's first black member of Congress since Reconstruction. However, in 1997 a panel of Federal judges required the boundaries to be revised, because the shape of the district was determined too closely by the racial characteristics of its voters and the boundaries were not sufficiently compact.

As described in a Washington Post news story, the judges described the district as a "grasping claw" or a "squashed salamander", one that did not reflect city/county boundaries or communities of interest:9

The state Constitution requires that districts be compact and contiguous. But the 3rd District, where 62 percent of those old enough to vote are black, meanders 225 miles in Tidewater and central Virginia, snaking into parts of Richmond, Norfolk, Petersburg, Portsmouth and Suffolk.

The Third Congressional District was redrawn several times during the 1990's in response to lawsuits, but always with the objective of concentrating enough urban black Democrats into one district.

The district boundaries extended across Hampton Roads into the urban precincts in Norfolk that had a high percentage of black residents. That split Norfolk's representation between the Second and Third Congressional districts - but it facilitated the election of Rep. Bobby Scott (a black Democrat) from the Third District while a more-conservative Republican would benefit from retaining the more-conservative precincts in other Norfolk neighborhoods.

Third District boundaries were drawn to include precincts in Norfolk with a high percentage of minority voters
in the 1990's, the Third District boundaries were drawn to include precincts in Norfolk with a high percentage of minority voters

after the 2001 redistricting, the boundaries of the Second District included the conservative military precincts at the Norfolk Naval Base and the minority residents of Norfolk were located in the Third District
after the 2001 redistricting, the boundaries of the Second District included the conservative military precincts at the Norfolk Naval Base and the minority residents of Norfolk were located in the Third District
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia, Division of Legislative Services, Current District Maps
a decade later, the Third District still hooked into Norfolk to include precincts with a high percentage of minority voters
a decade later, the Third District still hooked into Norfolk to include precincts with a high percentage of minority voters
Source: Congressman Bobby Scott, District Map

In Richmond, the redistricting also moved Democratic voters out of the adjacent Seventh District represented by Republican Rep. Tom Bliley at the time, easing his re-election.

Bliley, a former mayor of Richmond, had been elected from the Third District in the 1980's when it was centered on the state capital and its suburbs. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly in 1991 redrew the district's boundaries after the 1990 Census and the eastern edge of Richmond, with a high percentage of black voters, was incorporated in the new majority-minority Third District. The predominantly-white precincts in the west end of the city, the suburbs of Chesterfield, and several counties stretching up the colonial-era "mountain road" (US 33) to the Blue Ridge, were included in the re-drawn Seventh District.

in 1999, the Seventh District for US House of Representatives stretched from the West End of Richmond to Culpeper
in 1999, the Seventh District for US House of Representatives stretched from the West End of Richmond to Culpeper

Boundaries of the Seventh District were designed to create a safely-Republican seat and the Third District was intended to be a safe seat for Democratic candidates. However, the Democrats in the 1991 General Assembly who drew the boundaries were not being generous or even-handed with their Republican opponents.

The new Seventh District boundaries did not include the home of the incumbent Republican member of Congress, Rep. George Allen. Most of the area represented by Rep. Allen was transferred into the Tenth District represented by Republican Rep. Frank Wolf. The 1991 redistricting of the Seventh District was a partisan exercise that forced incumbent Rep. Allen to run against a fellow Republican incumbent in 1992, if he wanted to stay in the US House of Representatives.

Rep. George Allen from Charlottesville left the U.S. Congress, while Rep. Tom Bliley from Richmond's suburbs won the new Seventh District seat. Just as the Democrats had expected, the redistricting succeeded in forcing one Republican out of office... but the maneuver backfired. George Allen ran for governor in 1993, served for four very popular years, then defeated Senator Charles Robb in the November, 2000 election. The Republican party took control of the House of Delegates and State Senate in 1999, and Allen's election gave them control of all five statewide offices in 2001.

After the 2010 Census, the boundaries of Virginia's 11 districts for the US House of Representatives had to be re-aligned again so there was an equal number of people in each district, adjusting for shifts in population over the last decade. State and local election district boundaries were also modified in a parallel redistricting process.

The 2011 General Assembly redrew electoral boundaries and retained the odd shape of the Third Congressional District to ensure that a majority of voters in that one district were black. The boundary change to move conservative voters in New Kent County from the Third to the Seventh district increased the potential for a Democrat to continue to win the Third District, by even greater margins.

Virginia's only black member of Congress, Rep. Bobby Scott, was re-elected easily in 2012 and 2014. Just before the 2014 election a Federal court ruled that the boundaries were unconstitutional. Concentrating minorities in just one district diluted their voting power, and the judges ruled (in a split vote) that the boundaries were based on illegal racial gerrymandering rather than legal incumbent protection.10

a panel of Federal judges ruled in 2014 that the Third Congressional District boundaries (as drawn in 2011, shown above) were intended to dilute the votes of minorities and violated the Voting Rights Act
a panel of Federal judges ruled in 2014 that the Third Congressional District boundaries (as drawn in 2011, shown above) were intended to dilute the votes of minorities and violated the Voting Rights Act
Source: Division of Legislative Services Current District Maps, Third Congressional District

The remedy, according to the Federal court, was to redraw the boundaries in 2015 in time for the 2016 election to the US House of Representatives. The decision was appealed, blocking changes to the Third Congressional District boundaries during the appeals process.

In late 2015, the special master appointed by the Federal court proposed two plans, both of which proposed more-compact district boundaries so voters in the Richmond-Jamestown portion would be removed from the Third District. The plans also proposed revisions to the boundaries of the First, Fourth, and Seventh District to reduce the racial imbalance in the Third District.11

A panel of three Federal judges adopted a plan that moved one million voters between districts. The shift of voters living in Petersburg and Richmond from the Third to the Fourth District altered the racial composition of the Fourth District, from 32% African-American to 42% African-American. The City of Chesapeake was split, moving the northern half from the Fourth into the Third District.

The home of the incumbent US Representative from the Fourth District, Rep. Randy Forbes, remained in the Fourth District. Rep. Forbes was a Republican who judged that re-election would be substantially harder in his revised Fourth District, which now included much of Richmond and Petersburg and less of Hampton Roads.

A new option opened up for him when Rep. Scott Rigell in the adjacent Second District decided to retire. In early February, 2016, before the Supreme Court ruled on an appeal of the decision made by the three-judge panel, Rep. Forbes announced that he would run for election in the Second District. He still lived in the Fourth District and did not move, but the law only required that a candidate live within the state of Virginia.12

Rep. Randy Forbes entered the race with a substantial advantage in name recognition and cash on hand after serving for 16 years in the US House of Representatives. He served on the House Armed Services Committee, a key position for the Hampton Roads region with so many active and retired military personnel.

Despite his status as an "incumbent" and despite spending 10 times more than his opponent ($2 million vs. $200,000), Rep. Forbes was defeated in the June, 2016 Republican primary by a member of the Virginia House of Delegates who physically resided within the Second District boundaries. The winner of the primary, a former SEAL and Iraq War veteran, successfully portrayed Rep. Forbes as a a "coward" and "deserter" from his home Fourth District. Scott Taylor went on to win the seat in November, 2016, so the political party representing the Second District did not change as a result of the revised boundaries.

Rep. Forbes' decision to run in the Second District created an open seat in the Fourth District, greatly increasing the potential for a Democrat to win there. It also created a similar situation of candidates competing for election to the US Congress to serve a district in which they did not live.

Two Democratic and two Republicans sought their party's 2016 nominations to represent the Fourth District, and only one of the candidates already lived within the new boundaries. She did not win the primary, guaranteeing that Virginia would elect a new member of the US House of Representatives who did not live in the district he would represent. In November 2016, Democratic candidate Donald McEachin won the race, so the redistricting resulted in a shift in the party representing the Fourth District.13

a special master, appointed by a Federal Court to revise boundaries of US House District 3, proposed in late 2015 to strip voters on the northwestern edge (between Jamestown-Richmond) and add voters on the southwestern edge from the adjacent Fourth District
a special master, appointed by a Federal Court to revise boundaries of US House District 3, proposed in late 2015 to strip voters on the northwestern edge (between Jamestown-Richmond) and add voters on the southwestern edge from the adjacent Fourth District
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, US House of Representatives District 3 - Special Master, Plan 1

in January 2016, the panel of three Federal judges chose new boundaries (shown above) for the US Congressional Districts, moving precincts in Richmond and Petersburg from the Third to the Fourth District and triggering a decision by Rep. Randy Forbes to run in the Second District
in January 2016, the panel of three Federal judges chose new boundaries (shown above) for the US Congressional Districts, moving precincts in Richmond and Petersburg from the Third to the Fourth District and triggering a decision by Rep. Randy Forbes to run in the Second District
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services, Current Congressional Modification 16 Plan

A separate lawsuit was filed at the end of 2014 to contest "racial gerrymandering" at the state level, seeking a revision in boundaries for 12 districts (out of 100) in the House of Delegates. The basic claim was the same as in the Federal lawsuit. The boundaries were unconstitutional because they discriminated based on race, and when the General Assembly created new boundaries for House of Delegates districts after the 2010 census, black voters had been illegally concentrated in a dozen districts.

The boundaries created districts with a voting age population that was at least 55% African-American, packing them into a few areas in order to enhance the election potential for Republican candidates in other districts. In October 2015, a panel of three Federal judges ruled 2-1 that the boundaries were constitutional and no revisions were required for those 12 General Assembly districts, but the US Supreme Court agreed in June 2016 to hear an appeal. That kept open the possibility that the boundaries of those 12 state legislative districts could be redrawn before the 2017 elections for the House of Delegates.14

a 2014 lawsuit claimed that redistricting after the 2010 census created a dozen districts (shown in red) where minority-race voters who tended to vote for Democrats were packed into urban districts, to facilitate the potential election of Republican candidates in suburban districts
a 2014 lawsuit claimed that redistricting after the 2010 census created a dozen districts (shown in red) where minority-race voters who tended to vote for Democrats were packed into urban districts, to facilitate the potential election of Republican candidates in suburban districts
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

the boundaries of 12 House of Delegates districts, including District 74 (outlined above) were ruled to be constitutional in a 2015 court decision
the boundaries of 12 House of Delegates districts, including District 74 (outlined above) were ruled to be constitutional in a 2015 court decision
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

During the 2011 redistricting process, the House of Delegates was controlled by Republicans. The Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General were also Republicans, but the Democrats had a 22-18 majority in the State Senate. The split in control forced compromise when defining new boundaries for the 100 districts of the General Assembly's House of Delegates and the 40 districts for the State Senate.

The Democrats in the Democrat-controlled State Senate determined the boundaries of new State Senate districts and Republicans in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates determined the boundaries of new House districts. The party in control of each house ensured its incumbents would be protected, while making it harder for the other party to win future elections.

The final redistricting plan did not protect the top Democrat in the House of Delegates. Ward Armstrong represented the 10th District in the House of Delegates, and served as Minority Leader for the Democrats. It was his fate that Democrats who controlled the State Senate focused on Senate district boundaries, while Republicans controlled the map for the House of Delegates in which Ward Armstrong served.

The Republicans redrew Ward Armstrong's 10th District boundaries dramatically. The territory within his district was split between adjacent House districts, and a new 10th District was created far away in Loudoun, Clarke, and Frederick counties to accommodate population growth in the Northern Virginia suburbs. The Richmond newspaper used a hunting analogy to describe the political process that abolished Armstrong's district:15

In the picturesque forests and rolling hills of Southside Virginia, hunters wear blaze orange so they are not mistaken for wild game and shot. In the hunt for the 9th District seat in the House of Delegates, however, Republican bigwigs have tried to fit House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong with a set of antlers.

Armstrong's house was placed in the 16th District. Armstrong did not wish to oppose the incumbent representing that district, even though he was a Republican, so he moved to another house and ran for a seat in the State Senate. Despite raising over $1 million, he was defeated and his political career ended.

the top Democrat in the House of Delegates, Del. Ward Armstrong, represented the 10th District in Southside Virginia before the 2011 redistricting for the Virginia House of Delegates
the top Democrat in the House of Delegates, Del. Ward Armstrong, represented the 10th District in Southside Virginia before the 2011 redistricting for the Virginia House of Delegates
Source: Division of Legislative Services - 2010 District Maps, 10th District

there was no 10th District in Southside Virginia after the Republican-controlled 2011 redistricting for the Virginia House of Delegates
there was no 10th District in Southside Virginia after the Republican-controlled 2011 redistricting for the Virginia House of Delegates
Source: Division of Legislative Services - Current District Maps, 9th District


in the 2011 redistricting, the 10th District in the House of Delegates was moved far away to Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley... eliminating the opportunity for the Minority Leader of the Democratic Party to run for re-election
in the 2011 redistricting, the 10th District in the House of Delegates was moved far away to Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley... eliminating the opportunity for the Minority Leader of the Democratic Party to run for re-election
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services, Current District Maps - House of Delegates District 10

In 2013, the Republican Party attempted to redistrict the State Senate boundaries without waiting for another census. The State Senate at the time was evenly divided, with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. When one Democratic State Senator left Richmond to attend President Obama's second inauguration, the redistricting bill was brought up and passed immediately in a surprise move.

The new map would, according to Democrats, make it easier for Republicans to capture up to six seats held by Democrats and gain solid control over the State Senate, by packing Democratic voters into already-Democratic districts and adding precincts with more Republican voters to competitive districts. A Washington Post editorial labeled the proposal a "bald-faced power grab."16

In response, the Democrats angrily argued that redistricting outside the normal 10-year timeframe was unfair. Rather than hope a court would rule the mid-cycle redistricting to be illegal, the State Senate Democrats bounded together and used a political strategy: they threatened to block the Republican governor's signature bill to raise taxes to fund new transportation projects.

The Republican Majority Leader in the House of Delegates and the governor decided that the long-term benefits of "fixing transportation" were more important than the passing a surprise redistricting bill that might give Republicans control of the State Senate. The redistricting bill was dropped, and Democrats in the General Assembly then helped pass Gov. McDonnell's bill to raise transportation taxes.

in the proposed 2013 redistricting, State Senate District 39 (represented by Democrat George Barker) would have been modified so Democratic precincts along Route 1 would have been replaced by Republican precincts near Centreville
in the proposed 2013 redistricting, State Senate District 39 (represented by Democrat George Barker) would have been modified so Democratic precincts along Route 1 would have been replaced by Republican precincts near Centreville
Source: Virginia Public Access Project, State Senate District 39

In 2014, the Republicans used a different maneuver to gain control of the State Senate. State Senator Phil Puckett resigned in June, anticipating that leaving the legislature would clear the way for his daughter to be elected by the General Assembly as Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judge. In addition, Puckett may have expected that he would be chosen very soon after his resignation for the high-paying job as executive director of the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission.

Puckett's resignation left the State Senate with only 19 Democrats vs. 20 Republicans. The tie-breaking Lieutenant Governor, a Democrat, no longer had a tie to break when Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed expanding Medicaid. That blocked McAuliffe's effort to implement the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") and triggered investigations about whether the bargaining to get Puckett to resign/stay qualified as illegal political corruption.

The FBI declined to pursue inquiries, and a Republican was elected in the 38th District to replace Puckett. The Republicans gained clear control of the State Senate for the 2015 General Assembly without having to use a mid-cycle redistricting scheme. The 2015 General Assembly elected Puckett's daughter to serve as a judge, but the political backlash was intense enough that Puckett was not hired as executive director of the tobacco commission.17

A different mid-cycle redistricting was proposed in 2015 by one Republican incumbent in the State Senate. The boundary change would eliminate some problems created in the 2011 redistricting, which had established boundaries for the 17th and 25th State Senate districts that ignored the boundaries of pre-existing voting precincts. In Albemarle County, the Jouett, Stony Point, and Woodbrook precincts were three of 224 "split precincts" created in the 2011 redistricting, which increased confusion among voters and burdened local jurisdictions with $10 million in costs to make adjustments.18

The proposed redistricting in 2015 would eliminate that confusion in two of the three precincts, but not consolidate the Woodbrook precinct. In addition, the proposed new boundary lines would move the entire Georgetown precinct from the 17th to the 25th District, and the entire Stone Robinson from the 25th to the 17th District.

The net effect would be to increase the number of Republican-leaning voters in the 17th District, while moving Democratic-leaning voters out of that district. The boundary shifts for 11,000 residents in four precincts was predicted to increase the re-election potential of the Republican incumbent in the 17th District, who had defeated a long-time Democratic incumbent in 2011 by only 226 votes. The changed boundaries would add a net of 600 Republican votes to the 17th District. (The 25th District, which would gain Democratic-leaning voters, was already represented by a Democratic incumbent.)19

The bill (SB 1237) was passed by both houses of the General Assembly on predictably party-line votes with just Democrats opposed, and sent to the governor. Governor McAuliffe vetoed the bill, along with five others passed in the 2015 General Assembly that would have altered district boundaries, stating:20

Allowing the legislature to make substantive changes to electoral districts more frequently than once a decade injects further partisanship into a process that I regard as already too partisan. Annual legislative arguments over redistricting and gerrymandering distract the Commonwealth from the serious challenges we face, as well as undermine the trust of our citizens in their government.

in 2015, the Republican incumbent in State Senate District 17 proposed realigning boundaries with District 25, moving Republican voters into the 17th District and moving Democratic-leaning voters out of it
in 2015, the Republican incumbent in State Senate District 17 proposed realigning boundaries with District 25, moving Republican voters into the 17th District and moving Democratic-leaning voters out of it
Source: C'ville, Reeves’ Senate district swap prompts claims of political maneuvering

The Republican-controlled General Assembly and the Democratic governor clashed in 2016 over another redistricting law, this time involving the city of Fredericksburg.

That city is divided into four wards for city council elections. The mayor and two members of the council are elected at-large, with the winners determined by who gets the greatest number of votes from the 16,000 registered voters within the entire city. Four members of the city council are elected based on votes within individual wards, ensuring that those geographic regions each have a representative.21

Three wards have one polling place, but Ward 4 has two. In the 2011 redistricting, a portion of Ward 4 was placed in the 88th District for the House of Delegates, and the rest was placed in the 28th House District. Every two years, when there are elections for the House of Delegates, the registrar has to staff an extra precinct in Ward 4 so voters will see the choices for their district.

the 2011 redistricting map placed Fredericksburg's Wards 1 and 3 in the 88th House District, Ward 2 in the 28th House District, and divided Ward 4 between the 88th and 28th districts
the 2011 redistricting map placed Fredericksburg's Wards 1 and 3 in the 88th House District, Ward 2 in the 28th House District, and divided Ward 4 between the 88th and 28th districts
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services - Current District Maps, HB 5005 House District 88

In 2016, both districts were represented by conservative Republicans. The delegate from the 28th District was William Howell, the powerful Speaker of the House. To simplify the voting process, the two agreed to move all the voters in Precinct 401 into the 28th District. Roughly 500 voters would be transferred, based on the 2015 election for the House of Delegates.

William Street (red line) is the precinct boundary that divides the two portions of Ward 4 in Fredericksburg
William Street (red line) is the precinct boundary that divides the two portions of Ward 4 in Fredericksburg
Source: City of Fredericksburg, Map of Wards

As described by Speaker Howell, the bill was just a technical adjustment:22

There's nothing nefarious about this ... It was just done to make the registrar's job a little easier on Election Day.

Using the same justifications as in 2015, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed this redistricting bill as well:23

...this bill sets a terrible precedent. Allowing the legislature to make substantive changes to electoral districts more frequently than once a decade injects further partisanship into a process that I regard as already too partisan.

The governor's veto did not end the potential for the 88th House District boundaries to be altered through mid-cycle redistricting. A judge could force creation of a new map for elections after 2016, if the redistricting advocacy group OneVirginia2021 wins its lawsuit.

A panel of Federal judges blocked revision of 12 House districts in 2015 based on a claim of "racial gerrymandering," but OneVirginia2021 filed a separate lawsuit based on a separate objection - compactness. The lawsuit, scheduled for a September 2016 hearing, claimed that boundaries of five House of Delegates districts and six State Senate districts (House Districts 13, 22, 48, 72, and 88 plus Senate Districts 19, 21, 28, 29, 30, and 37) violate Article II, Section 6 of the Virginia Constitution:24

Every election district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory.

Pressure for redistricting reform comes from various directions. Some who feel the last redistricting process was "unfair" seek to alter the process of redrawing boundaries in order to prevent a repeat in 2021. Other partisan advocate anticipate their party will be in control during the 2021 General Assembly, and preserving the current process would provide a decade of extra legislators.

One impact of the traditional process, allowing incumbents of the majority party in the House of Delegates and State Senate choose their voters, is that few elections are close contests. Voters are packed into districts to ensure the winner will be Republican or Democrat, no matter which political party is in charge during the process. If Democrats are in charge, as they were in the State Senate in 2011, then the redistricting process will increase the number of districts designed to elect Democrats. If Republicans are in charge, as they were in the House of Delegates in 2011, then the boundaries will be drawn to elect more Republicans.

As a result, prior to the 2015 election an assessment of the 2013 results for the House of Delegates noted:25

Only 15 members currently in the House of Delegates won their seats with less than 10 percent margin of victory. 39 members ran completely uncontested, while the other 46 won with more than 10 percent victory margin. Gerrymandering makes it difficult for these races to be competitive...
the lawsuit of OneVirginia2021 claims the 88th House District is one of 11 General Assembly districts that are not compact enough to be valid under Virginia's constitution
the lawsuit of OneVirginia2021 claims the 88th House District is one of 11 General Assembly districts that are not compact enough to be valid under Virginia's constitution
Source: OneVirginia2021, Compact

the 50th House District (outlined in purple) is clearly compact, and the OneVirginia2021 lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of House District 13 (outlined in red) to the north but not House District 51 (outlined in yellow) to the south
the 50th House District (outlined in purple) is clearly compact, and the OneVirginia2021 lawsuit based on compactness challenged the constitutionality of House District 13 (outlined in red) to the north but not House District 51 (outlined in yellow) to the south
Source: Virginia Division of Legislative Services, Redistricting Plans

Links

the boundaries of the 100 House of Delegates districts include more acres in rural districts with low population density, such as Southwestern Virginia, while districts in urbanized Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads have the same number of people but less land
the boundaries of the 100 House of Delegates districts include more acres in rural districts with low population density, such as Southwestern Virginia, while districts in urbanized Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads have the same number of people but less land
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

References

1. "Article II. Section 6. Apportionment," Constitution of Virginia, http://law.lis.virginia.gov/constitution/article2/section6/ (Last checked April 29, 2016)
2. Thomas Rogers Hunter, "The First Gerrymander?: Patrick Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, and Virginia's 1788 Congressional Districting," Early American Studies, Volume 9, Number 3 (Fall 2011), pp.782-783, p.789, pp.792-794, https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/23791 (last checked April 29, 2016)
3. "From James Madison to George Washington," December 2, 1788, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-11-02-0276 (last checked April 29, 2016)
4. "What went wrong for Eric Cantor?," Washington Post, June 11, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/what-went-wrong-for-eric-cantor/2014/06/11/0be7c02c-f180-11e3-914c-1fbd0614e2d4_story.html (last checked February 19, 2015)
5. "Ward, Rasoul, Sullivan: Redistricting in the General Assembly: The sound of one hand clapping," The Roanoke Times, February 11, 2015, http://www.roanoke.com/opinion/commentary/ward-rasoul-sullivan-redistricting-in-the-general-assembly-the-sound/article_033575fb-16c4-5100-bd4d-d47e6ca078e3.html (last checked February 19, 2015)
6. "Redistricting - How Does the Process Work in Virginia?," OneVirginia2021, http://onevirginia2021.org/redistricting/ (last checked February 19, 2015)
7. "Fair Redistricting in Virginia," American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Spring 2001, p.9, http://www.acluva.org/publications/votingrightsguide.pdf (last checked October 25, 2013)
8. "Virginian-Pilot editorial: No victory in tawdry history of redistricting," The Virginian-Pilot, May 27, 2016, http://pilotonline.com/opinion/editorial/virginian-pilot-editorial-no-victory-in-tawdry-history-of-redistricting/article_b1ae1683-3a17-5778-8734-6e0440bc6d3a.html (last checked June 7, 2016)
9. "House District in Va. Ordered Redrawn," Washington Post, February 8, 1997, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/supcourt/stories/redraw27.htm (last checked October 25, 2013)
10. "Court declares Virginia’s congressional map unconstitutional," Washington Post, October 7, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/court-throws-out-virginia-congressional-map/2014/10/07/97fb866a-4e56-11e4-8c24-487e92bc997b_story.html (last checked February 14, 2015)
11. "Maps of Court's Redistricting Plans," Virginia Public Access Project, November 18, 2018, http://www.vpap.org/updates/2076-courts-redistricting-plans/ (last checked November 19, 2015)
12. "Randy Forbes switching districts in 2016 congressional election," The Virginian-Pilot, February 8, 2016, http://pilotonline.com/news/government/politics/virginia/randy-forbes-switching-districts-in-congressional-election/article_d419f663-2871-54d5-be16-5ae828345390.html; "Franklin, Isle of Wight could shift to new district," Tidewater News, January 13, 2016, http://www.tidewaternews.com/2016/01/13/franklin-isle-of-wight-could-shift-to-new-district/; "Forbes isn't the only out-of-district congressional candidate in Hampton Roads," The Virginian-Pilot, March 26, 2016, http://pilotonline.com/news/government/politics/virginia/forbes-isn-t-the-only-out-of-district-congressional-candidate/article_4c5ecdcb-33fe-5fd1-aaa1-bf76e0e33db7.html; "Hampton Roads congressional elections draw multiple candidates," The Virginian-Pilot, April 6, 2016, http://pilotonline.com/news/government/politics/virginia/hampton-roads-congressional-elections-draw-multiple-candidates/article_c1496506-8459-5ecb-b97a-294bb56e13f9.html (last checked April 6, 2016)
13. "Scott Taylor defeats veteran Randy Forbes in 2nd Congressional primary thanks to a feisty grassroots campaign," The Virginian-Pilot, June 14, 2016, http://pilotonline.com/news/government/politics/virginia/taylor-defeats-forbes-in-nd-congressional-district-gop-primary/article_2e1315de-1d5a-51fb-801a-be2886af5e02.html;"Virginian-Pilot editorial: The choices in the 2nd and 4th districts," The Virginian-Pilot, June 5, 2016, http://pilotonline.com/opinion/editorial/virginian-pilot-editorial-the-choices-in-the-nd-and-th/article_95568343-8ed0-53d8-861f-9c5019da9173.html ; "Price tag for Forbes' failed 2nd District primary campaign: $2 million," The Virginian-Pilot, July 18, 2016, http://pilotonline.com/news/government/politics/virginia/price-tag-for-forbes-failed-nd-district-primary-campaign-million/article_55ac92c9-87fa-5eb6-ad12-342ed87cdcf5.html (last checked July 18, 2016)
14. "Suit seeks 12 redrawn House of Delegates districts," Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 31, 2014, http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/government-politics/article_7db468da-d4a2-5139-a896-180359b09780.html; "Va. state House redistricting map survives court challenge," WTOP, Va. state House redistricting map survives court challenge, http://wtop.com/virginia/2015/10/va-state-house-redistricting-map-survives-court-challenge/; "SCOTUS to hear second Virginia redistricting case," Newport News Daily Press, June 6, 2016, http://www.dailypress.com/news/politics/dp-nws-bethune-virginia-redistricting-20160606-story.html (last checked June 8, 2016)
15. "GOP targets Democratic veteran Armstrong," Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 11, 2011, http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/gop-targets-democratic-veteran-armstrong/article_73ebb4c5-10b6-52cf-8d20-766438335126.html; "New directions," Martinsville Bulletin, January 2, 2012, http://www.martinsvillebulletin.com/article.cfm?ID=31538 (last checked October 25, 2013)
16. "Va. Republicans’ redistricting maneuver draws criticism," Washington Post, January 22, 2013, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-01-22/local/36477740_1_virginia-democrats-republicans-house-district-boundaries; "Virginia Republicans' bald-faced power grab," Washington Post, January 22, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/virginia-republicans-bald-faced-power-grab/2013/01/22/0bd6b95e-64b3-11e2-9e1b-07db1d2ccd5b_story.html (last checked February 14, 2015)
17. "Senator's resignation leaves Democrats scrambling," The Virginian-Pilot, June 9, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/2014/06/senators-resignation-leaves-democrats-scrambling; "Puckett’s Senate exit undid McAuliffe’s secret plan for Medicaid expansion," Washington Post, November 22, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/pucketts-senate-exit-undid-mcauliffes-secret-plan-to-pass-medicaid-expansion/2014/11/22/c5edf09e-59f5-11e4-b812-38518ae74c67_story.html (last checked February 14, 2015)
18. "Reeves' Senate district swap prompts claims of political maneuvering," C'ville, January 27, 2015, http://www.c-ville.com/reeves-senate-district-swap-prompts-claims-political-maneuvering/; "Localities to bear brunt of $10 million Virginia legislative redistricting plan," Washington Post, May 29, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/politics/localities-to-bear-brunt-of-10-million-virginia-legislative-redistricting-plan/2011/05/25/AGhmzJEH_story.html (last checked April 28, 2016)
19. "Challenge ahead, Va. state senator’s bill would make his district even safer," Washington Post, February 17, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/challenge-ahead-va-state-senators-bill-would-make-his-district-even-safer/2015/02/17/af179732-b6c8-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html (last checked February 20, 2015)
20. "Governor McAuliffe Vetoes Bills on Redistricting Outside of Constitutional Process," Governor of Virginia news release, March 26, 2015, https://governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/newsarticle?articleId=8038; "McAuliffe vetoes six redistricting bills," Washington Post, March 26, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/mcauliffe-vetoes-six-redistricting-bills/2015/03/26/f38886fc-d3b9-11e4-ab77-9646eea6a4c7_story.html (last checked March 26, 2015)
21. "2016 Registration Statistics," Virginia Department of Elections, http://elections.virginia.gov/resultsreports/registration-statistics/2016-registration-statistics/index.html; "City Council," City of Fredericksburg, http://www.fredericksburgva.gov/index.aspx?NID=260 (last checked March 28, 2016)
22. "Individual Election Results - 2005 to Present (.csv)," 2015 November General, Virginia Department of Elections, https://voterinfo.sbe.virginia.gov/SBE_CSV/ELECTIONS/ELECTIONRESULTS/2015/ (last checked March 28, 2016)
23. "HB254 - Governor's Veto," Virginia's Legislative Information System, http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?161+amd+HB254AG (last checked March 28, 2016)
24. "Court Asked To Reject Rigged, Twisted Political Districts, Enforce Va. Constitution’s Requirement Of Compactness," OneVirginia2021, September 14, 2015, http://onevirginia2021.org/compact/; "Compact," OneVirginia2021, September 14, 2015, http://onevirginia2021.org/compact/ (last checked July 16, 2016)
25. Frank Muraca, "The Nutshell: Session Ends Tomorrow - Now What?," February 27, 2015, http://www.virginia21.org/the-nutshell-session-ends-tomorrow-now-what/ (last checked March 2, 2015)


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