One of the most aggressive gerrymanders in the country is unconstitutional, according to a divided three-judge panel in Virginia. In 2012, President Barack Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney by three points in the state of Virginia. Nevertheless, Republicans control eight of the state’s eleven congressional districts. Yet, according to an opinion by Judge Allyson Duncan, a George W. Bush appointee, the maps that produced this result are unconstitutional and the legislature must “act within the next legislative session to draw a new congressional district plan.”
Although this will permit the 2014 elections to be run under the old maps, new maps must be in place by 2016 (assuming, of course, that this decision is not reversed on appeal). As Virginia currently has a Democratic governor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe will be able to veto any plan which is unfair to his fellow Democrats, while the GOP-controlled legislature will no doubt push for a map that serves Republican interests. Because the current maps favor Republicans so strongly, however, the likely result will be maps that are much more favorable to Democrats.
The flaw in the current maps arises from the state’s Third Congressional District, currently represented by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). In a professed effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that new congressional maps do not cause a ‘‘retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise,” (a requirement that has since been neutered by the Supreme Court,) the new maps packed an additional 44,711 African American voters into Rep. Scott’s district — thus preventing these black voters from influencing elections in other districts. This decision, according to the court, was not allowed.
The Voting Rights Act, Judge Duncan explained, “does not ‘give covered jurisdictions carte blanche to engage in racial gerrymandering in the name of nonretrogression.'” Scott’s new district has “an odd shape” made up of “a composition of a disparate chain of communities, predominantly African-American, loosely connected by the James River.” Moreover, while the new black voters increased the black voter population within the district from 53.1 percent to 56.3 percent, such packing was completely unnecessary to maintain black voter strength in Virginia. “In 2010,” Duncan explained, “Congressman Scott won 70% of the vote, while in 2012–under the redistricting plan at issue here–he won by an even larger margin, receiving 81.3% of the vote.”
The district, in other words, looked a whole lot like a racial gerrymander. As a practical matter, the map drawers were also quite successful in diminishing the power of Democratic voters because, in a district where the Democrat wins with 81.3 percent of the vote, 31.3 percent of the vote is essentially wasted since it was unnecessary to push the winning candidate over the top.
Should the new maps produce a congressional delegation that more closely resembles the state’s partisan preferences, it is likely that Democrats will gain 2-3 seats in the House.