Lawmakers looking to gain or keep a political edge during redistricting over the years have carved up some inventive electoral districts: Ohio's "snake by the lake," Pennsylvania's "Goofy kicking Donald Duck," and two centuries ago, the snake-like district in Massachusetts that inspired the term "gerrymander."
In Virginia, House of Delegates District 72, sometimes called the "toilet bowl" because of how it curves around Richmond, became the gerrymandering poster child in the state as advocates pressed for a redistricting commission to create fairer political maps.
Voters overwhelmingly approved the bipartisan commission in November 2020, but this year, as the commission has tried to redraw voting districts in the midst of legislative elections and a race for governor, the group is mired in partisanship that has become increasingly bitter and personal. In fact, the commission gave up trying to draw state legislative maps after three Democrats, responding to what they said was GOP stonewalling, walked out of a meeting earlier this month.
Mackenzie Babichenko, the commission's Republican co-chair, summarized the mood a few days later: "It seemed as though there was just a fundamental lack of trust of each other's motives."
In most states, lawmakers draw up their own political districts. Virginia is one of about ten states that has moved to a special committee that includes citizens to handle the process.
But unlike elsewhere, Virginia's commission includes a mix of lawmakers and citizens that critics say doomed it from the start. The commonwealth's closely watched off-year statewide and legislative elections have also heightened the partisan mood as Democrats defend their grip on the legislature. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is also trying to win back his old job in a tight race with Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin.
State Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democrat who represents the so-called "toilet bowl" district (although, he prefers to call it a horseshoe), says changing demographics and anti-Trump sentiment allowed his party to eventually flip both legislative chambers in 2019, but the mood is different this year.
"The wins in 2017 and 2019 were narrow wins because they were gerrymandered," VanValkenburg says. "And so that requires a high level of turnout and requires a high level of voting to keep these seats." That is not necessarily the case with a Democrat in the White House.
As he campaigns this fall, VanValkenburg has occasionally checked in to see various proposals on how his district should be redrawn. Back before voters passed it, many Democrats in Virginia advised voting against the commission, warning that the inclusion of politicians would keep it from being independent enough from politics. Also, that it wouldn't do enough to make sure minority groups were fairly represented.
VanValkenburg — who championed the commission — says despite the body's failings, it's still a step in the right direction.
"The process we have now is very transparent," VanValkenburg says. "It's very open. I think people are seeing how messy redistricting is — hopefully it leads to more reform. I would be a fan of more reform."
Several members of the commission have already offered up ideas on how to improve it: removing politicians, adding independents or creating a partisan balance that reflects the state's political makeup rather than a 50-50 split.
Democratic co-chair Greta Harris advised her colleagues to read up on Virginia's history of racial discrimination after heated debates over how people's race should be used in maps. Harris also spoke directly to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which is now poised to take up the drawing of state maps as the commission deadlocks.
"I am appealing to the justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia, to take the principles that we discussed at the beginning of this process ... to look at the law, not only at the federal level, but at the state level, and lift up fairness," Harris said, before walking out of the meeting.
It's all a disappointment to voters like Julia Hebner, a 14-year resident of the horseshoe-shaped district who supported creating the commission. Hebner blames politicians in the group for its failings and says they should be excluded in the future.
"I mean, everybody says this: The politicians shouldn't be choosing their voters. The voters should be choosing the politicians," Hebner says.