The most recent congressional redistricting plan passed by the Virginia legislature, and now signed by the governor, is clearly a step backward in the progress to advance political parity for the minority community. First, for background purposes, the Virginia legislature passed a redistricting plan overwhelming from the House (74 to 21) and barely from the Senate (20 to 19). This new plan maintains only one congressional district where African Americans are in the majority (the 3rd congressional district held by Rep. Bobby Scott). That being said, the plan passed by the legislature increased the 3rd congressional district’s Black percentage from 53% in the current plan to almost 60% in the recently passed plan.
This increase has some stating that the congressional district plan is “packing” Black voters into the 3rd. Packing is a term that denotes increasing the number of minority voters more than needed for the minority community to elect a candidate of choice. This increased number in one district usually decreases the influence of minority voters or the ability to elect a candidate of choice in an adjacent district.
Evidence that the plan packed Black voters is exemplified by reviewing an alternative plans such as the plan that the Virginia Senate was advocating for prior to the takeover of the Republicans in the Senate in November 2011. The Senate last year backed a plan, sponsored by Sen. Mamie Locke, which created one majority African American district and another majority minority district. The majority African American district in the Senate plan was essentially the current 4th congressional district modified for Black voters to be in the majority. The current 3rd district, Rep. Scott’s district, was reduced to 43% African American yet still maintained enough total population to be a majority minority district when Black voters and Hispanic voters were combined.
Now here is where the Virginia legislature took a step backward. Twenty years ago, most minority voting rights advocates would be clamoring to make sure that the 3rd congressional district had at least 60% of the population African American instead of the 53% that we have in the current district. At that time, the belief was (and rightly so) that a district in the south would need a Black population of at least 60% (and most likely 65%) in order for African Americans to be able to elect a candidate of choice. And, if we journeyed back 30 years or more, advocates would be requesting even higher than 65%. That situation has now changed to where many minority voting rights advocates are satisfied with the lower amount (53%) in the majority African American district (the proposed 4th) if it meant that a second majority minority district could be created. On the other hand, the Republican led legislature passed a plan that increased the Black percentage unnecessarily in the district to 60%.
One would think that progress would translate to slowly lowering the Black percentage necessary in minority districts over the last 20 years as our society continues to evolve and move to a more politically inclusive arrangement. However, the Virginia legislature’s passing of this plan seems to turn back the clock and negate or ignore much of the political progress that has been made. When this apparent packing is combined with the fact that Virginia has a minority population of almost 36% with over 19% being African American, the situation looks even worse. Although the state’s minority population is over a third, Virginia has only one congressional district out of 11 where the minority community has the ability to elect a candidate of choice. The Senate’s Locke plan would have moved the state toward a fairer configuration by incorporating a majority African American district and a district where minority voters (who are predominantly Black) would likely elect a candidate of choice.
Virginia is not the only case of potential packing of congressional districts that exists. The state directly to the south, North Carolina, is currently in litigation, in part, by being accused of packing congressional districts. North Carolina’s demographics are similar to Virginia, the minority population is 35% with over 21% being African American. However, North Carolina has two congressional districts where African Americans can elect a candidate of choice (District 1 represented by Rep. G.K Butterfield and District 12 by Rep. Mel Watt). North Carolina having two congressional districts by no means diminishes their packing problem. It does however tend to amplify the situation in Virginia. Virginia has and continues to have only one district where minority voters can elect a candidate of choice.
In addition, if the number of African American districts as a proportion of the Black voting age population for the state is analyzed, Virginia stands at 2.0 congressional districts. This means that “proportionately” speaking, Virginia should have two districts where African Americans could elect a candidate of choice instead of one. In fact, Virginia is one of only two states where Black voters have at least a full congressional district “less” than its proportionate amount. Texas is the other. Texas, however, is currently in litigation and may be required to include another district. If so, this would leave only Virginia. All that being said, since the redistricting plan has been signed by the Governor, the only hope is that the courts will compel Virginia to continue moving forward and not take a step backward.