By: Emily Wagman

On September 14th, fourteen plaintiffs represented by DurretteCrump PLC filed suit in the Circuit Court for the City of Richmond against the Virginia State Board of Elections, alleging that their respective House of Delegates and State Senate districts are not compact. Compactness is one of the Virginia Constitution’s three redistricting criteria. Along with compactness, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) requirements, and the “one person, one vote” requirement, districts must be contiguous and as close to equal in population as possible. Contiguity and equal population are relatively easy to determine, by looking at the proposed maps and the population data, respectively, compactness is more complicated.

The complaint points to three measures of compactness – the Schwartzberg measure, the Reock measure, and the Polsby-Popper measure – and refers to all three when describing the districts at issue. But what do those compactness standards really measure? The Schwartzberg standard looks at the comparison of the perimeter of the district to the area of the district. The Reock standard, often called the “circumscribing circle,” compares the area of the district to the area of the smallest possible circle that could be drawn around the district on a map. Finally, the Polsby-Popper standard compares the area of a district to the area of a circle with the same perimeter as the district.

On paper, circles and ratios are relatively straightforward. But what about in practice? The complaint goes into detail on what low scoring (on all three compactness measures) districts look like, and they’re not pretty. Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch described two of the districts as a “partially eaten crescent-shaped cookie” and an “elongated version of the boot of Italy,” respectively. And the other challenged districts don’t look any better. If compactness is important enough to warrant a mention in the Virginia Constitution, why did the General Assembly ignore the requirement when drawing the 2011 maps, ultimately leaving the fourteen districts at issue decidedly not compact under all three mathematical measures?

The complaint alleges that the General Assembly had other things in mind when they drew the most recent general assembly districts, namely political considerations, which led to the lack of compactness in the challenged districts. While political considerations are not constitutionally mandated in Virginia, they’re not unconstitutional either. In the most recent legislative session, Senator John Watkins proposed Senate Bill 840, which would exclude political data from the redistricting process in an effort to avoid favoring a certain political party or incumbent legislator. Ultimately, while the bill passed the Senate, it was left in the House Privileges and Elections Committee in February 2015.

Would eliminating the use of political data lead the General Assembly to draw more compact districts? It’s definitely an interesting question, and one that doesn’t have an answer yet. While Florida, for example, passed a constitutional amendment that prohibited the use of political data in redistricting, its most recent map was the subject of litigation that resulted in the state supreme court calling for the Florida legislature to redraw the lines of eight congressional districts. One of the districts in question, Florida’s 5th Congressional District, was noted by Christopher Ingraham as one of the most gerrymandered congressional districts, so the jury is really still out on whether eliminating political data would lead to more compact districts in Virginia.

At the very least, the impending litigation will draw attention to the lack of compactness in Virginia, and to the fact that the Virginia General Assembly can use political data as a consideration when redistricting, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

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