By: Ben Williams
This past week, an upstart election law reform organization in Virginia garnered national attention for a lawsuit that could redefine the legal strategies of anti-gerrymandering activists across the country. Per Article II, § 6 of the Virginia Constitution, “[e]very electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory…” (emphasis added). Virginia is not alone in requiring its districts to be compact—a majority of states have such a requirement. But while the word “contiguous” is easily defined (all parts of the district are connected in a single, unbroken shape), the political science community lacks a common understanding of what exactly contiguity is. As a threshold issue, there are two potential ways to measure a district’s compactness: spatially (the physical shape and area of the district) or demographically (calculating the spread of persons within a given district). While many states do not define which of these measures should govern, or if one should be preferred over the other, the Virginia Supreme Court in Jamerson v. Womack said the language of Art. II (cited above) “clearly limits [the Article’s] meaning as definitions of spatial restrictions in the composition of electoral districts.” Thus, one of the key questions the Circuit Court judge and the attorneys in the case had to address was how to measure spatial compactness in Virginia?