A City Divided: Gerrymandering in Lynchburg
It was during height of the political fervors of the 1992 elections, in the midst of Democrat Bill Clinton's run on President George H.W. Bush, when Robert Goodlatte — then just a candidate for Virginia's 6th U.S. Congressional District — made a promise to voters.
Goodlatte, like many other Congressional representatives at the time who bargained with constituents to get votes, was at the forefront of the growing national movement to levy term limits on Congressmen, to limit what Goodlatte called the "benefit of incumbency."
“We need to make sure we do not elevate people to positions of leadership and power in this Congress simply based on how long they have been warming their seat, but rather based on merit and ability," Goodlatte said in part of his 1997 rallying cry to impose Congressional term limits through a Constitutional amendment.
It was during his campaign when Goodlatte promised the constituents of his 6th district that he would retire from the House after six years, bearing that he gets re-elected. It was his self-imposed promise to uphold what he called the foundational democratic principles of term limits, to hold the powerful accountable and remove corruption from Washington.
Twenty years after he made that promise, in November 2017, Goodlatte announced his retirement from public service.
The constituents in Lynchburg — whether they liked him or not — saw Goodlatte be voted into office 13 consecutive times, over which time period he was largely unchallenged; Goodlatte never received less than 60 percent of the vote in his district.
Nationwide election data shares the same story. Gallup shows a rock-bottom 19 percent approval rate for Congress at the beginning of 2018, but national election data shows that more than 90 percent of incumbents in the House get voted in every two years; it is even higher for Senators.
Lynchburg City, located edge of Virginia's 6th district, has city election officials and redistricting activists bewildered. For one, although it is considered a metropolitan area and the U.S. Census projects it has a larger-than-average proportion of minority groups, Lynchburg City has consistently, and to some extent, exuberantly, voted for Goodlatte and his fellow Virginia state Republican officials.
In fact, archived data from the Virginia Department of Elections shows that the people of Lynchburg City as a whole never voted for anyone other than Goodlatte to represent the 6th district in his 25-year term in office. Primary election challengers in 2012 and 2016 — the two years Goodlatte faced a Republican challenger — were also heavily disavowed by Lynchburg residents at the ballot box.
Goodlatte's stronghold on Lynchburg is heavily contradicted with Lynchburg at the local level, where five of its seven city councilmembers are Democrats and it is run by a mayor who has been endorsed by the Lynchburg Democratic Committee since her first time in office in 2004. In the State House of Delegates, Lynchburg is represented by two separate representatives; state district lines split the city in half.
Researchers at the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, in a 2014 report, deduced there are three factors that affect how incumbents in the U.S. like Goodlatte are voted in somewhat religiously: an influx of money, prominence, and — most importantly, they concluded — gerrymandering, the process of redrawing districts to favor a specific political party or candidate.
While Lynchburg may seem to politicians and election statisticians as a deep red area on the surface, it has also been the subject of redistricting efforts over the past decade, which has divided the city's communities and neighborhoods via voting districts. Activists and election officials alike have looked at redistricting and gerrymandering within Lynchburg, and the overall consensus for such a politically complex city is just that: utter confusion.
Virginia's 6th Congressional District: "It's red 'till the end"
Brian Cannon is just one of the redistricting activists who said he is alarmed by the juxtaposition of the Greater Lynchburg area's election history.
Looking at the bigger picture, he said he is fascinated with redistricting efforts in the entire commonwealth. Cannon serves as the executive director of OneVirginia2021, a non-profit organization focused on exposing gerrymandering in Virginia and pushing for legislation that makes districts more "compact" — which he said is jargon for being fair and representative of the people.
Cannon and his team at OneVirginia2021 have focused their efforts recently on compiling voting data and demographics of the people of Virginia to piece together a snapshot of how gerrymandering muddles community voice and generally protects incumbents in each level of government.
His findings are stark; Virginia, he said, has some of the least compact districts in the country. When measured by compactness and the amount of times district lines split through counties and break up cities by demographic, the commonwealth is the 5th worst gerrymandered in the nation.
"There's somewhat of a 'Frankenstein' effect to these communities where they take bits and part of our communities and they carve them up and cobble them together," Cannon said. "And when you look at it, you see that these communities that are in the same district are not related. There's no community voice being represented, because the voices are being fractured and stifled."
Maps of the 6th district show district lines as jagged and obtrusive. Large counties, including Bedford County and Roanoke County, are divided in half and scalped. Whether intended or not, the current district lines as they stand break up neighborhoods. Someone who votes in the 6th district could have a neighbor 500 feet from their house who votes in the adjacent 5th district.
Aside from a couple of metropolitan areas college towns — Roanoke and Harrisonburg, mainly — the district is deeply red. It is considered the second largest Republican stronghold in the state in terms of previous voting records obtained by the Virginia Department of Election, right behind the 9th district in southwest Virginia.
For Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, the district was an easy win. In the 2016 presidential elections, 60 percent of the district voted for Trump; 66 percent voted for Goodlatte in the same year.
Cannon said it is unlikely, then, that redistricting of any kind would flip the tables to make the 6th district blue, and he hopes anyone redistricting Virginia for fairness would not try to do so. Instead, he said redistricting efforts should focus on making sure that cities and counties are left whole in the same district so that voters in a specific locality are represented by the same politician.
"I'm not concerned with the specific outcome per say, I just want the communities to be fairly represented," Cannon said. "Whether it’s a liberal or conservative district, I don't care, but district lines should be fair instead of being artificially rigged for one side or another."
Roanoke City is the largest Democrat-stronghold in the deeply red 6th district, yet it is only about five miles away from being in the 5th district. The district lines of the 6th take sharp and unnatural turns that barely wrap around Roanoke City in order to adjoin it to the 6th district's deep-red state, where Cannon said Roanoke voters hardly have a say of who their representative is.
"You can bet that the voters in Roanoke do not feel represented when they hit the ballot box," Cannon said. “They’re practically the only blue area in a sea of red.”
Right before the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau came out — with it, new district lines — a group of Republicans led by former RNC Chairman and Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate Ed Gillespie devised a plan to redraw district lines to upend the Democratic super majority that came with Barack Obama's rise.
The logistics of the plan, called "Project Red Map," were to push back census redistricting until 2012, when Republicans had the ability to win a majority in the state Senate. With a majority in the General Assembly, Virginia state Republicans were able to redraw Congressional districts to favor their party.
The result, in Cannon's opinion, could not have been better for Republicans.
"Republicans executed 'Project Red Map' masterfully," Cannon said. "But it also made districts less compact and rigged the system towards their party's favor."
"Project Red Map" was able to change the overall leniency of the districts. Maps obtained from FiveThirtyEight's Gerrymandering Project show that instead of having five Republican-leaning districts, five Democrat-leaning districts and one highly competitive district, that Republican gerrymandering skewed Virginia into having one less Democrat-leaning district and one more highly-competitive district.
For redistricting activists like Cannon, Roanoke's placement just within the 6th district is important, too. In 2008, the 5th district voted for the Democrat by less than 1 percent ; in 2010, the 5th district voted for the Republican by 1 percent. In 2012, after redistricting took place via "Project Red Map," the 5th district became solidly red, with the Republican winning by 12 percent.
If district lines were more compact and Roanoke was located in the 5th district as a result, it may have kept Democrats in power in the 5th district in 2010, and if it not were for "Project Red Map," the district may still be blue today, Cannon noted.
"When the Democrats win by 1.4 million votes nationally in 2012, and they ended up losing 63 seats in the House, that was the direct result of gerrymandering," Cannon said.
Aside from a case in 2016 when state judges levied a change in the 3rd and 4th Virginia district after finding them subject of racially-biased gerrymandering by Republicans, the districts have not changed since "Project Red Map." In the upcoming 2018 midterm elections for the U.S. House, the districts still remained rigged in Republicans' favor.
"I'm fairly confident that the Republicans will win," John Wood, chairman of Liberty University's College Republicans club, said. His club is active in every single election that Lynchburg voters and Liberty University students are a part of. "Nothing is ever 100 percent, but it's a pretty solid Republican district, and I'm confident in whoever the nominee ends up being."
The Republican Committee of the 6th Congressional District has decided to nominate its candidate by means of a convention, to be held May 19.
Garrett and Byron: Slicing up Lynchburg City
Within the boundaries of the 6th Congressional district stand the 23rd and 22nd State Delegate Districts. Depending on where one lives in Lynchburg, he or she may be in either one, as the district lines cut right through the heart of the city. Residents on the east side of the divide are represented by General Assembly veteran Kathy Byron; the residents of the urban downtown of Lynchburg that makes up much of the east side of the city are thus represented by the same delegate as those in rural Bedford County.
On the west side of the city, in the 23rd district, residents are represented by eight-year Republican of the General Assembly, Scott Garrett.
Both representatives are Republicans, but the divide of the city — which was put in place as part of the redistricting in 2010 after the U.S. Census — has helped to fortify Scott Garrett's hold on his 23rd district, according to data compiled from the Virginia Department of Elections.
In 2009, when Garrett was first elected, he defeated Democratic incumbent Shannon Valentine by a margin of exactly 209 votes. Following the redistricting of the 2010 U.S. Census, in which Lynchburg's eastern urban sector was taken out of the 23rd district, Garrett won by more than 12,000 votes in 2013.
The 22nd district covers a mass amount of land in Bedford County, but snakes across the county line of Bedford and Campbell County to reach in and adjoin itself to the eastern half of Lynchburg. The shape of the district is elongated and curves and bends suddenly, creating and overall unnatural-looking and non-compact district that stretches all the way to Roanoke County.
Patricia Bower, chairwoman of Lynchburg City's Election Commission, said she remembers how vastly different the districts were in 2009, when Lynchburg was not yet divided and was wholly encompassed by the 23rd state delegate district. She recalls a general consensus of fairness, of pride, of unity within the city.
"It was always better in Lynchburg when we had one representative over this locality rather than two," Bower said. "When there are two delegates who represent people in the same city, then no one's needs get met, and the voice of the community is broken."
That same unity which she saw before the U.S. Census and "Project Red Map," though, has largely dissipated, Bower said. Residents are unsure of who their representative actually is, or what he or she stands for and what issues their representative prioritizes. Voters in downtown Lynchburg and other urban districts, she said, do not feel as though their voices or needs are being respected.
Wood, who said he once had lunch with Delegate Garrett over the matter of redistricting, disagrees with Cannon and Bower, who believe districts should be about creating whole communities. Rather, he said, Garret convinced him in discussion that it is more important to maintain the power dynamic in the General Assembly.
"When you take some of the more urban, populous areas and you put them with voters from rural areas, it balances out the power structure," Wood said.
Liberty University, from which Wood is a senior government student, has its own reputation for swinging elections in Republicans' favor. Although it is located in southeast Lynchburg, it is still considered part of the 23rd district — barely. As it stands, Liberty's voting precinct — the second precinct in the third ward — is drawn on the actual edge of the district line next to the 22nd state delegate district.
If it were a few miles closer, and districts were more compact, Liberty's red wave of influence would be given to Byron, and Garrett's hold on the 23rd would weaken.
"Things are bad right now," Bower said. "And it's going to take a nonpartisan redistricting commission to get the job done. It would hard to make it perfect, but it definitely needs to get better."
Delegate Garrett did not respond to a request to contribute to this reporting. In his election in 2017, he defeated his Democratic challenger, Natalie Short, by 48 percentage points.
At the local level, Lynchburg changes its mind
Within the city of Lynchburg itself, a much different picture is being pieced together. Despite the city's stonewall stance with its Republicans in the U.S. House and Virginia General Assembly, archived data from the Virginia Department of Elections show that, historically, Democrats have been able to win handedly in the City Council.
A big reason for this, Bower said, is because residents in Lynchburg who receive public subsidized housing or other governmental assistance know that it is facilitated by the local government. Bower guesses that many residents in the city know their city councilman or woman, maybe even met him or her face-to-face, which she said gives incumbents in the city council a large upper-hand.
Because there exists a type of incumbency protection for the city council, Bower and Cannon said it makes it all the easier for incumbents in power to redraw wards and precincts.
The second ward of Lynchburg is made up mostly of urban districts and includes most of the public subsidized housing units within the city. Out of the top 20 low-income housing neighborhoods in the city, 12 of them are located in the second ward.
The boundaries of the wards take deep cuts across neighborhoods and divide communities, and keep some together. Low income neighborhoods — the same ones that are adjoined to Byron's 22nd district — are largely confined to the second ward, where Democratic-leaning City Councilman Sterling Wilder was able to garner 78 percent of the vote in his precinct in 2016 with an underlying message of more government assistance for the poor.
Only a few miles down the road, in the neighboring third ward in Lynchburg, Republican City Councilman Jeff Helgeson won 55 percent of the vote against two candidates who were running against him. It is Ward III that houses Wood's College Republicans at Liberty University, which in no matter ward it belongs to, would bring with it an unyielding wave of conservative voters and make it hard for a Democratic candidate.
Election officials saw this come to play last fall, when Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie barely edged out Democratic candidate Ralph Northam to win Lynchburg. If Liberty University voters were taken out of Lynchburg's voting numbers, though, Northam would have won Lynchburg.
Still, despite Liberty University's influence, if the wards in Lynchburg were more compact by Cannon's and Bower's standards, Lynchburg's City Council may look different.
"It's really not a partisan issue, because both parties in Virginia do it when they are in power and get the chance," Bower said.
Looking at the fourth ward in Lynchburg City, which is represented by Democrat-supported Turner Perrow, the ward is skinny and cuts through neighborhoods—nearly stretching all the way from the very southern part of the city to the northern-most tip.
"Look to see if the district has an irregular shape," Cannon said. "Look to see if it goes around specific communities and neighborhoods. Everything is intentional with gerrymandering."
In the upcoming Lynchburg City Council race — which will take place May 1 — it will not matter what areas the wards encompass, as all three seats that are up for grabs are at-large. In 2014, the last time the three at-large seats were open, Democrats swept all three of the open seats in the city council.
Still, as 2018 elections soon get underway, Bower emphasized the importance for the people of Lynchburg to understand not only what district they are in and who they are represented by, but also how politicians' gerrymandering schemes affect who gets voted in, and how long each candidate gets voted in.
Through public initiatives that Bower is a part of the educate the populous about gerrymandering — she commonly hands out fliers on redistricting at the Lynchburg Community Market and works with Cannon's team at OneVirginia2021 — she said she has hope that a greater awareness among Lynchburg voters may spur changes in the current drawing of districts.
"The overall response I have gotten from the public is good," Bower said. "They seem to get it. Fixing the maps is a tall order, but I think it's doable. I'm still optimistic, because really you have to be to not lose hope."