The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia has some of the fairest district maps in the country. Here’s why.

Redistricting reform advocate Brian Cannon poses with some of his yard signs and bumper stickers in his office in Richmond. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Sam Wang is director and founder of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

At long last, Virginia has its legislative maps for the next decade. It’s been a long time coming — and I’m not even talking about the decade of advocacy from nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters and OneVirginia2021.

Virginia voters have quite literally been waiting for maps that reflected their interests since 1788, when Patrick Henry intentionally drew James Madison out of his congressional district to thwart his rival’s political ambitions. Politicians have been subverting the fairness of our democracy by gerrymandering their party’s way into power ever since — both in state legislatures and in the halls of Congress.

This was the impetus for the creation of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project in the first place. Our mission has always been simple: We want to do nonpartisan statistical analysis of district maps to understand and eliminate partisan gerrymandering state by state.

Our algorithm was designed to be the most comprehensive method available for detecting gerrymander attempts in this decade’s redistricting cycle. But we also intended to make our final ratings user-friendly by giving letter grades for map proposals on competitiveness, geography and partisan fairness.

With that, we can say that our data shows that Virginia’s maps are some of the fairest and best legislative districts that have been adopted during this redistricting cycle thus far. Both the congressional and House of Delegates maps received “A” grades overall, and the state Senate map received a “B.”

The final maps are a marked improvement over the 2011 gerrymander under a process that was controlled solely by politicians. We can attribute the Old Dominion’s success to three overarching factors.

First, this redistricting cycle has proved to be the most transparent in Virginia’s long history, because its cornerstone was citizen involvement. Abundant public input and feedback every step of the way were key factors in drawing better, fairer maps.

Second, the Virginia General Assembly wisely included well-written legal criteria to follow. The proof is in the pudding: The final maps did not unduly favor one party, contained considerable levels of competition and built districts that represent communities of interest and racial groups across the commonwealth.

Finally, the new process was successful because it had a good final backstop mechanism: the Supreme Court of Virginia. If the end goal was to prevent the inherent conflict of interest of having elected officials draw their own district lines, it was the logical place to send a gridlocked commission. And despite the cries of overt partisan influence from the high court, these warnings were unfounded — just as we predicted in a report we wrote in February 2020.

Given the hyperpartisan roadblocks of the Virginia Redistricting Commission, we know that this conclusion might be difficult for some to believe. And though the commission’s deliberations broke down, we still believe that the new process approved by Virginia voters has proved itself to be a success in the end.

Consider the obvious challenges faced by two of Virginia’s neighbors: North Carolina and Maryland.

Both states’ redistricting processes are dominated by political parties writing their own rules. Just as a decade before, Maryland Democrats and North Carolina Republicans have rigged their proposed districts in their respective favors, leading to both states receiving “F” grades. Redistricting advocates look to Virginia with envy, despite some of the messy internal squabbles that came with the commission.

Looking ahead, we hope that Virginia can take the lessons learned from this year’s redistricting process across America and build on it. The emerging trends across the country seem to be that clear criteria and public input invariably lead to fair maps, and including elected officials increases the likelihood of the process being scuttled.

For us, this is the most obvious opportunity for Virginia to improve moving forward. While we appreciate the fact that including legislators on the commission was a key factor in getting the plan approved in the first place, we also disagree with some elected officials in Virginia who placed blame on the citizen commissioners after negotiations stalled.

Citizens had little trouble coming up with fair maps in Arizona, California, Colorado and Michigan, and we hope that Virginia can take this additional step to improve on an already solid foundation. For example, if legislators want to change the process, perhaps they could replace themselves on the commission with retired judges.

Put bluntly, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project flatly rejects the assertion that Virginia’s redistricting process was a failure. Was it frustratingly marred with partisan gridlock? Yes. Can it be improved upon in the future? Yes. But in the end, the fundamental question is this: Did the new process produce fair maps? Our analysis says yes, too. Virginians should be proud.