Court Strikes Down Virginia's Racially Gerrymandered Districts

First it was Florida, now a federal court has ruled that the districts drawn by the Virginia legislature after the 2010 census are unconstitutional because they are drawn to limit the representation of black people to a single district.

A panel of federal judges on Tuesday declared Virginia’s congressional maps unconstitutional because they concentrate African American voters into a single district at the expense of their influence elsewhere.

The decision, handed down in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, orders the Virginia General Assembly to draw up new congressional maps by April — potentially launching a frenzied and highly political battle for survival within Virginia’s congressional delegation.

The order delivered another victory for Democratic plaintiffs hoping to break up black-majority districts, which they say have been drawn by Republicans who have used the Voting Rights Act to dilute the influence of minority voters.

A similar case in Alabama in which Republicans prevailed will be heard by the Supreme Court this term.

“We’re obviously thrilled with the results,” said Marc Elias, a lawyer on the Virginia case who represented two voters from the district where the unconstitutional redistricting took place. “The Republicans engaged in impermissible racial gerrymandering in a cynical effort to gain seats. . . . We look forward to the state doing a new redistricting to comply with the court’s orders.”

Elias said that if Virginia does not appeal, its leaders will have to go “back to the drawing board” to draw their electoral boundaries.

Judge Robert E. Payne wrote in a dissenting option that incumbent protection — rather than race — motivated the redistricting, a practice which is legal.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court may very well rule the wrong way in the Alabama case and cancel this ruling, as well as the Florida ruling. What needs to be done is that redistricting should be removed from political control entirely. Districts should be drawn up by a committee of experts who are not beholden to elected officials or political parties.

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    But… suppose it was my sincerely held religious belief that black people shouldn’t vote?

  • Modusoperandi

    Reginald Selkirk, that depends. Are you incorporated?

  • YOB – Ye Olde Blacksmith

    a committee of experts who are not beholden to elected officials or political parties

    Do such experts even exist?

  • howardhershey

    The general rule is that for every majority-minority district that is formed, there will be two Republican districts that get formed. Thus the necessity of maintaining residential and income segregation.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Do such experts even exist?

    I think that’s a good question. In New York, for example, there is a proposal to take the district-making task away from the legislature and assign it to a special commission – whose members would be appointed by the leaders of the two major parties in the legislature.

  • colnago80

    Re Reginald Selkirk @ #5

    Such a statute is already in effect in California, having been passed by the voters in a referendum. As I understand it, the current Congressional districts were drawn by such a commission.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    I like how we’ve done redistricting in Washington since 1983:

    1. The state constitution requires that Congressional and legislative districts be contiguous, reasonably compact (no strategically configured districts) and follow established landmarks (streets, rivers, coastline, etc.) when setting boundaries.

    2. During a year ending in a 1, the majority and minority parties in both the state House and state Senate appoint someone to represent their party and chamber in the Redistricting Committee. Once constituted, the four Commissioners have one month to hire a fifth person to serve as non-voting Chair. If they cannot reach an agreement, the state Supreme Court can step in to appoint a Chair for them. Neither the Commissioners nor the Chair may not be current holders of political office or employees of the state government, nor, I think, have held such a position within one year of their appointment.

    3. Public input is solicited. Commissioners draw up maps, and more public input is solicited. The choice of maps are narrowed down to one Congressional map and one Legislative map. The redistricting plan must be submitted to the Legislature on or before December 31, xxx1. If the Commission fails to meet this deadline, the work of the Commission is handed over to the state Supreme Court, who will draw up their own plan and submit it to the Legislature.

    4. When the xxx2 legislative session opens on the second Monday of January, the redistricting plan is considered and debated. It is considered passed once it is approved by a simple majority of both chambers. The Legislature may chose to alter the plan, but that requires a 2/3 supermajority in both chambers. The Legislature may also chose to return the plan to the Commission, or request the intercession of the state Supreme Court if there are concerns that constitutional and other legal requirements are not being satisfied. Once passed, the redistricting plan goes into effect for that year’s election without needing the governor’s signature. If the Legislature adjourns without passing a redistricting plan, the state Supreme Court does the redistricting, which remains in effect until the Legislature passes a plan.

    Since going into effect, there have been three commissions (1991, 2001, 2011) and all have performed smoothly. The 2011 commission barely squeaked the December 31 deadline: just before Christmas, the Supreme Court noted the partisan bickering in the commission and announced that it would begin meeting to prepare its own plan. Oddly enough, the commission immediately came to a compromise plan that was submitted on December 31. Funny how that worked out.

  • Crimson Clupeidae

    Congressional districting could easily be done by a computer algorithm these days. It would be simple enough to review the code to ensure that it is only given population and geographical data (no racial or political data) to generate fair congressional districts. Then it wouldn’t matter who controlled the legislatures, and the districts could potentially be updated more frequently.

  • moarscienceplz


    Such a statute is already in effect in California, having been passed by the voters in a referendum. As I understand it, the current Congressional districts were drawn by such a commission.

    Yes, and in Arizona, too. But the Arizona legislature wants the SCOTUS to shut these commisions down.

  • roggg

    Have it done by computer based on geography and population alone with no regard for demographics of any kind. I can assure you that is a thing that is easily done.

    Or better yet, switch to a proportional representation system so none of the bullshit matters anymore.

  • steve oberski

    I’m pretty sure that the right to gerrymander districts was set down by the founding fathers in the constitution.

  • busterggi

    Gloryosky! Bad enough to share the same geographical location with persons of the black persuation, now Repubs may have to share their maps with them too.

  • corwyn

    Districts should be drawn up by a committee of experts who are not beholden to elected officials or political parties.

    As we can see from the example of the SCOTUS, such a thing does not exist.

    On the other hand, this task would be simple for a computer, with a copy of the census, and some rules for creating districts. All we need to do is agree on those rules.

  • Trebuchet

    @7, Gregory: Have you seen what the current 2nd district (mine) looks like? If not a “gerrymander”, it’s some sort of mythical creature. Just because it was gerrymandered in favor of Democrats doesn’t make it right.

    @8, 10 and 13: It’s a perfect job for a computer algorithm. That’s probably why the pols will never allow that to happen.

  • brucegee1962

    The algorithm could be based on mapquest. Assume that Candidate X lives in the geographic center of the district. She sets out in her car with the intention of driving door-to-door and visiting every voter in her district. Now minimize the driving time for the candidate in all districts in the state. That doesn’t sound terribly difficult.

  • tacitus

    Well, here in Texas, when people complained about the redistricting process, the GOPers overseeing it were refreshingly frank about it all, essentially say “We won, we get to do things as we please.”

    The entire election apparatus, from redistricting to voting day should be taken out of the hands of the political party machines and run on an apolitical basis, with tough laws to enforce it. (Yeah, I know, it’s a pipe dream.)

    Other nations, like the UK, have done this for decades, with very little fuss or controversy. Redistricting is done only after public consultation and the rules require communities to be kept together wherever possible.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    We used to have an independent commission (composed mostly of retired judges and university professors, IIRC) to handle redistricting in Florida.

    It was killed by a Democratic-controlled stage legislature, which voted to take on that job itself.

    Now the state’s internal legislative and Congressional districts are drawn by and for the Republican party, which has turned a slim voting majority into an incredibly lopsided political domination. The Democrats have responded with typical ineptitude by nominating a Republican for governor.

  • corwyn


    Actually, as phrased, that sounds like it contains the traveling salesman problem, which is NP-complete (i.e. Really Hard). But something like that, for sure.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    @Trebuchet #14 – You may want to compare WA-2 to NC-4, NC-12, MD-3, IL-4 and FL-5.

    WA-2 is comprised of Island and San Juan counties, along with Washington’s east interior coast from Briar to Bellingham. The eastern border of the district is mostly defined by major thoroughfares: Interstate 5 for a length, Highway 528 for a big chunk, and so on. The rest is drawn to conform with municipal borders so as not to split municipalities across districts (another constitutional requirement.) The odd appearance is mostly because it includes two counties comprised entirely of archipelagos and an adjacent strip of municipalities on the mainland. Given the reality of geography and the fact that the committee had to squeeze in a whole new district, it could have been far worse.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    @brucegee1962 #15 – An easier algorithm might be:

    1. Create a grid that conforms to existing roads, rivers, municipal and county borders, etc. with a resolution of about one city block. Get the census population of each cell in the grid. Merge cells until you have a reasonably similar population in each. These will become precincts.

    2. Divide the census population of the state by the number of legislative districts, giving the target population of each district. Do a first-run pass of assembling precincts into districts. Then do an iterative series of passes, adding or removing precincts to each district until a) every precinct is in a district, b) there is no more than a 0.5% difference in the populations of the most and least populous district, c) municipalities below a set population threshold may not be divided into separate districts, and d) each district meets a set of requirements defining compactness.

    3. Repeat step 2 for congressional districts. Repeat the iterative process, chancing requirement c) to say that no municipality can be divided into separate congressional districts (if you live within the borders of Capital City, you are in district X, no exceptions.)

    Base the process solely on geography and population rather than current office holders. If someone gets redistricted out, then they can either move or run for office in their new district.

  • Dan J

    We should form the districts mathematically, using the shortest splitline algorithm.