Welcome to the 58th: Details of Boyd and Bell’s redistricting maneuver

Albemarle Delegate and attorney general hopeful Rob Bell. Photo by Ash Daniel. Albemarle Delegate and attorney general hopeful Rob Bell. Photo by Ash Daniel.

In the week and a half that has followed the controversial redistricting bill pushed through the State Senate on Inauguration Day, more details have come to light about the last-minute engineering of a small shift in local House district lines that could have a lasting impact on local politics.

If the bill clears the House and Governor Bob McDonnell’s desk, Republican Albemarle County Supervisor Ken Boyd’s house in the Key West neighborhood off Stony Point Road would jump from Democratic Delegate David Toscano’s 57th District to Republican—and candidate for Attorney General—Rob Bell’s. It could clear the way for a House run for Boyd, though he’s declined to comment on that possibility.

But just how did the shift come about?

It started with a desire to correct the headache known as a split precinct, according to local election officials.

The last round of redistricting, in 2011, left Albemarle’s Free Bridge precinct divided. Residents of Key West, which teeters on the edge of the line dividing Toscano’s 57th House district and Bell’s 58th, had to form two lines at their polling place on voting days, and election officials had to deal with a lot of extra bookkeeping.

Such splits pop up all over the map in the wake of wholesale redistricting, Albemarle County Registrar Jake Washburne explained, because the new lines drawn at the state level cross and complicate local boundaries. And they’re a huge hassle. In late 2011, Virginia’s Division of Legislative Services asked for input from counties on where the problem areas were, requesting suggestions for fixes.

One option for the sticky spot in Free Bridge was to shift the House district lines to move some residents from the 57th to the 58th, or vice versa. But Washburne said the mappers in his office couldn’t make it work. Legislative districts are designed to have the same number of voters in each, and the populations of the two adjacent House districts was so close that even a small shift would tip the scales too much for one or the other. Jack Austin, in charge of rules, education, elections and special projects for the Division of Legislative Services, told the county House leaders wouldn’t sign off on the adjustments.

“We then got a request from Ken Boyd,” Washburn said. Late last year, Boyd asked Washburne’s team to go back to the drawing board and consider moving all of Key West to the 58th, he said, swapping it out for a sizable chunk of the 57th.

County Electoral Board Chair Jim Heilman said he and Board Secretary Dr. Clara Belle Wheeler met with Key West residents, who supported a move that would allow them to vote together—and allow a single delegate to represent their whole neighborhood. But the same problem still remained, Heilman said.

“The 57th and the 58th, their numbers are so high that even a little shift throws one of them out,” he said. So around Christmas, “we opined to the Board of Supervisors and to the affected delegates that we could see no good solution to the problem, and with no good solution, we may as well stick with what we’ve got.”

That’s when Bell stepped in. Before the start of the 2013 legislative session, Bell acknowledged he tweaked the bill containing numerous technical adjustments to house districts that was to be carried over from 2012—the same bill destined to be passed in the Senate on inauguration day, expanded to include a total overhaul of Virginia’s Senate districts.

The change? A shift of some voters from the 58th to Fluvanna’s 65th, just enough to make room for Key West—and Ken Boyd.

Bell said he’d been in contact with Boyd before filing the adjustments to the bill. They’ve known each other a long time, he said.

“I’m happy with the lines,” said Bell. “I’m happy to have everyone in Key West, including Ken, as constituents.”

He wasn’t willing to say whether he’d like to see Boyd take his House seat should he win the race for Attorney General. “I haven’t won the nomination yet,” he said. “But at some point I will no longer be the delegate.” When that happens, “I’m sure he’s one of the names that would come up.”

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