Last week Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell vetoed an initial plan to redraw the boundaries for the commonwealth’s voting districts. The Old Dominion, where General Assembly seats are up for grabs this fall, is the first state in the country to redraft districts based on 2010 census data. We explore the politics at work in Virginia’s efforts to compose new voting districts.


  • Bob Gibson Executive Director, Thomas C. Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, University of Virginia


  • 13:43:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIVirginia is a place with a reputation for doing things first. The first president was a Virginian, the first major battle of the civil war was fought on Virginian soil. So it seems only natural that the first shots of the latest round of political battles over redistricting have gone off deep inside the old dominion. Governor Bob McDonnell vetoed a plan last week to draw the commonwealth's legislative boundaries for the next decade. He said the General Assembly sent him a partisan plan that split too many counties, cities, and towns, a plan that may actually violate pieces of the voting rights act.

  • 13:43:48

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIMeanwhile, complaints are flying around from other directions that the redistricting process is a sham, a political game designed to protect incumbents. Joining us to explore how lawmakers in Richmond are likely to resolve this dispute and what the new maps are likely to mean for people who vote in the commonwealth is Bob Gibson, executive director of the Thomas C. Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

  • 13:44:15

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe was a political writer, columnist, and editor of the Charlottesville Daily Progress for 30 years. Bob Gibson, thank you for joining us. Bob joins us...

  • 13:44:22

    MR. BOB GIBSONHi Kojo.

  • 13:44:23

    NNAMDIBob joins us from studios in Charlottesville. Always a pleasure, Bob. The General Assembly came back to work this month for a special session on redistricting, but last Friday, Governor McDonald told them that their work is not done yet. He vetoed their plan, which he said may actually violate federal law. Now, it doesn't look like the General Assembly is going to reconvene until next Monday when they were supposed to reconvene last Monday. Where -- where to from here?

  • 13:44:47

    GIBSONWell, no one seems to be terribly clear about what's going to happen. It's very cloudy right now in Richmond as far as the forecast for redistricting. There seems to be two alternatives. There is the alternative of compromise, and there is the alternative of allowing the courts to draw new districts rather than the legislature which is the way it should be done. But the legislature has drawn very partisan lines, and those in the Senate bill were vetoed by the governor.

  • 13:45:12

    GIBSONSo the Senate has the option of sticking by its guns and its plan and not having the votes to override the veto, which would lead to probably a different set of districts for at least the Virginia Senate, perhaps the entire legislature. Because the House bill is tied to the Senate bill.

  • 13:45:28

    NNAMDIWhat exactly did Governor McDonnell say was wrong with the maps that were submitted to him?

  • 13:45:34

    GIBSONThat they split too many communities and that they were not compact and contiguous as other plans might have been. They are traditional partisan plans, and this is a traditional partisan response. The first time in Virginia -- this is -- this year is the first time that we've had Democrats in control of one part of the process, and Republicans in control of the other part of the process. The last times it's been redistricting every 10 years, the Democrats have had full control until 10 years ago when the Republicans had full control.

  • 13:46:09

    GIBSONAnd in those cases, it was very easy for one party to draw the lines that it wanted because the governor of that party would approve them. And except in 1981 when they were struck down in court, they would go on and have partisan districts. Now we're gonna have a court battle in increasing likelihood.

  • 13:46:26

    NNAMDIIf there is not a court battle, how much time are we working with here? Virginia has elections coming up this fall.

  • 13:46:35

    GIBSONWell, the -- the legislature right now has set August 23 as the date for nominations because there has to be a 60-day review period for the Justice Department in Washington to review the final handiwork of the legislature, and it's not final yet because of the governor's veto. So the clock is ticking. They have to get something very quickly out of Richmond and to the Justice Department, and chances are whatever they get to -- if they get it out of Richmond, and it still can be challenged, it'll be more on solid legal ground if the governor and the legislature have signed off on these partisan lines.

  • 13:47:07

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about redistricting in Virginia, you can call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Bob Gibson, executive director of the Thomas C. Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. Bob, it seems there are a lot of hardcore politics at work here. Some people have called out the governor for singling out the Senate plan and not pushing Republicans in the House to improve their maps.

  • 13:47:33

    NNAMDISenate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said that Bob McDonnell is trying to force the Democrat to, quoting here, "negotiate themselves into the minority." What do you make of the political posturing that's taking place right now.

  • 13:47:47

    GIBSONWell, one thing that you have to be mindful of is that the Senate is very close in partisan makeup. There are 22 Democrats and 18 Republicans. And the House, there are 61 who caucus with the Republicans, and 39 who are Democrats. So it's much easier in the House, and in the House they also -- both sides did compromise to an extent. The Democrats were included in consultations on the Republican plan, and in some cases districts were kept rather contiguous and compact at the request of some northern Virginia Democrats.

  • 13:48:18

    GIBSONSo they voted for the Republicans' plan. There were only eight votes against the Republicans' plan in the House of Delegates. So it has more bipartisan support, whereas the plan in the Senate that Dick Saslaw and the Democrats drew is much more partisan and much less -- there has been less consultation and cooperation on the part of the Republicans.

  • 13:48:37

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that Governor McDonnell did put together a bipartisan advisory commission on the redistricting process, not unlike the deficit commission President Obama put together last year, and that the Assembly largely ignored the Commission's advice. What do you think the governor could have done, if anything, to have more influence over the process?

  • 13:48:59

    GIBSONHe named this 11-member citizen's advisory commission at the last minute in pretty much the calendar of the redistricting. They had a month or a little bit more than a month to prepare plans, and the legislature said early on that they were going to prepare as the constitution provides their own plans. And the two never really meshed. The -- each held public hearings around Virginia, and the public hearings were rather well attended, and plenty of comment was given criticism and support for the plans drawn by college students in connection with the commission and by the commission.

  • 13:49:36

    GIBSONAnd the -- the legislature held its own hearings and came up with its own partisan plans as it always does. And it -- it usually will because this is the -- the last line of defense for partisan power in the legislature is the power to redistrict the lines, and they know how to do it very well. They know how to -- in the House to make more than 60 districts, I think they have 69 that are now fairly safely Republican, 60 percent or more. And the Democrats have increased their likelihood of holding onto the Virginia Senate through the lines that they have drawn if they will stand up in Court.

  • 13:50:10

    GIBSONAnd goodness knows if they'll compromise between now and next Monday when the legislature gets together to get them signed by the governor.

  • 13:50:16

    NNAMDII'm so glad you said always does and always will, Bob Gibson, because you covered this stuff for the Charlottesville Daily Progress for more than 30 years. How in your view is this round of redistricting shaping up compared to others that you've followed?

  • 13:50:32

    GIBSONThey were a lot sloppier in the past. I remember in 1981 they drew 101 House districts until somebody counted them. They also had a variance of, you know, over 25 percent in population from district to district in 1981's plan which was thrown out by a federal judge after a number of -- the NAACP and the ALCU in common cause sued, and were successful in having the 81 plan thrown out. They ran in their old districts in '81, and in '82 they had to run in new districts that were single member districts, and that's when Republicans started making some significant gains because the Democrats had the advantage of using multimember districts to maintain their majorities in the House of Delegates until 1982.

  • 13:51:14

    GIBSONGeorge Allen was first elected in 1982 in one of the new single-member districts carved in Albemarle in Nelson County. And don't forget, there is a congressional redistricting map that's still in play here as well. That is not yet passed and signed by the governor, and creates 11 congressional districts that, heaven forbid, and who would expect anything different, protect all 11 incumbents, the three Democrats and the eight Republicans currently serving in the House of Representatives from Virginia.

  • 13:51:44

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. What questions or concerns do you have about new legislative districts are being drawn in Virginia right now, and what do you think might be at stake in this current round of legislative redistricting? 800-433-8850. Bob Gibson, it's not often that you hear about someone like Prince William County's Corey Stewart identified as a conservative forcing an alliance with the NAACP.

  • 13:52:11

    NNAMDIBut somehow they've ended up on the same side of this issue, and how it may end up affecting Prince William County. How did that happen?

  • 13:52:20

    GIBSONThe Voting Rights Act makes for strange bedfellows. And what is does is it requires that black districts and minority -- majority minority districts have to be protected, and that is very much to the advantage of surrounding white districts that tend to vote more Republican than the black districts that are drawn to maintain black voting and strengthen those districts under the Voting Rights Act.

  • 13:52:43

    GIBSONSo this alliance has in the House of Delegates, and in some counties, including Prince William, led to a very nice relationship between the Republicans in the majority and the black Democrats who like to maintain the strength of their districts.

  • 13:52:59

    NNAMDISo that once the -- once the districts remain they way they are now, it means that those blacks who tend to vote Democratic will not be infringing on the Republican districts, but if this plan were to go through, they would

  • 13:53:16

    GIBSONThey love to trade voters, and I -- I would use the congressional map in Virginia as a good example. Eight Republicans traded voters in the surrounding Democratic districts saying, here -- here are some Democrats we've discovered on my side of the line. You take them on your side of the new line, and that will help in the case of Jerry Connelly, and in the case of Bobby Scott. It will help strengthen districts that are already fairly Democratic in nature. The 11th, of course, Connelly's district, is now the most competitive in the state.

  • 13:53:53

    NNAMDIYou mentioned this before, but we got a comment posted on our website from Kai (sp?) who said, "What happened to the redistricting recommendations from citizens and college students? I saw several articles in the Washington Post over the last few months regarding both citizen groups and college student groups that were putting in a lot of time. They were using new demographic data and new technological capabilities to create new voting maps. My understanding was that these groups were working under the invitation of the Virginia state government."

  • 13:54:21

    GIBSONThey did very well, and the maps -- I examined a number of them closely, and they did a very good job of drawing compact contiguous district with communities of interest. The college students took their task seriously and they drew some very, very good maps. However, they were not taking incumbency and party -- partisan into account, and they -- it was, shall we say, an academic exercise.

  • 13:54:46

    NNAMDIHere is Jake in Arlington, Va. Jake, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:54:51

    JAKEHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say that I'm a Democrat living in Arlington County, and last week when I saw the new Senate maps, I was absolutely furious. Because what I saw was that Janet Howell had redrawn a map and taken a portion of Arlington County and bring it into her district, when she's been serving Fairfax for 20 years. And so I'm very happy to see that Governor McDonnell vetoed that bill.

  • 13:55:15

    JAKEI think it was a very unfair bill, and I think it was really a case of state senators choosing who their constituents are going to be, not constituents are going to be, not constituents choosing a state senator.

  • 13:55:23

    NNAMDIUnderscoring the point that Bob Gibson made earlier that in the Senate where the Democrats are in the majority, the map seem to be more partisan than in the House.

  • 13:55:35

    GIBSONI think they're partisan on both sides, but the Senate has some strange lines. I mean, the district I grew up in Arlington, Mary Margaret Whipple has represented for a number of years, and that district now carves itself across northern Fairfax County, and 22 percent of its new voters will be in Louden County.

  • 13:55:53

    NNAMDISo there. Jake, thank you so much for your call. Regardless of what happens with the redistricting process, whether it goes through the court or whether the General Assembly can come up with something new, it seems as if northern Virginia stands to pick up a seat or two either way, Bob.

  • 13:56:09

    GIBSONAbsolutely. The demographics of the state, the immigration patterns that have people moving into in different portions of the state and leaving southwest Virginia and south side Virginia, rob that area of the state and take the new seats up to northern Virginia. So there are two new Senate districts, and there are four or five House districts that are being created in northern Virginia under almost any plan that will bring new representation to northern Virginia.

  • 13:56:34

    GIBSONSo when all this gets sorted out, and it may not for a few years, if this goes to court, you know, the court may draw the lines. Then we may get some lines that have absolutely nothing to do with where the incumbents live. But the legislature eventually will have the task of redrawing its own lines if they can't compromise next week, and, you know, if the court throws the baby out they'll come back in a year and draw it again.

  • 13:56:58

    NNAMDIWhat is the possibility or likelihood of seeing more competitive districts being drawn with a plan coming out of the General Assembly?

  • 13:57:08

    GIBSONThe General Assembly, given its narrow partisan Democratic majority in the Senate and the healthy -- hefty Republican majority in the House of Delegates right now, is not in a mood to compromise. If they could, they could get something that would pass muster with the governor and be signed into law and probably hold up in the courts, because the first thing they'd do is they'd protect the majority minority districts in the voting rights act. The majority black districts were -- are all being protected, and that is the number one way to knock down a redistricting plan in court.

  • 13:57:43

    GIBSONOtherwise, variances is a good way. But usually there's a lot of deference in the courts to the way the politicians draw the lines, that's the tradition. Virginia can look at what the Senate has passed several times, and that is non-partisan redistricting, but that's a long ways off in our state I believe.

  • 13:57:59

    NNAMDIBob Gibson is the executive director of the Thomas C. Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. Bob thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:08

    GIBSONThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:58:09

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Taylor Burnie with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein, and A.C. Valdez. Our engineer today, Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Politics Hour — March 16, 2018

Friday, Mar 16 2018Maryland Senator Ben Cardin joins us to talk about the youth movement against gun violence, Russian sanctions, and more. D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh shares her thoughts on relief for high water bills and news that D.C. Public Schools is taking over an all girls charter school.