3rd District, A Brief History
Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District winds along the James River, stretching 90 miles from Richmond to Hampton Roads.
The District has had the same basic outline since 1992, when the General Assembly sought to comply with U.S. Department of Justice guidelines aimed at giving African-Americans a better opportunity to elect a congressman of their choice.
It worked. In 1992, Bobby Scott became Virginia’s first black congressman since Reconstruction.
But the 25-year effort to create and maintain a minority-majority district has run afoul of federal judges, who have ruled twice – in 1998 and 2014 – that Virginia unconstitutionally made race the predominant factor in drawing the lines.
The General Assembly did not meet a Sept. 1 deadline to redraw the district without making race the sole or even predominant factor. The task of drawing new maps now falls to the courts.
The modern 3rd Congressional District has its origins in the 1990 census, which found Virginia’s population had grown enough to warrant an 11th seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the same time, the U.S. Justice Department under President George Herbert Walker Bush provided guidance that, when possible, states should create minority-majority districts.
That guidance led several southern states to draw boundaries that separated white and black neighborhoods within communities, resulting in districts with jagged outlines. In Virginia, General Assembly created a district with a black voting-age population of 61.4%. The 3rd Congressional District cut a winding path from Richmond, north to the middle peninsula and then south and east to Norfolk.
In 1995, two Republican voters filed a lawsuit claiming the 3rd District plan was unconstitutionally gerrymandered along racial lines. Proponents defended the minority-majority district, saying it was justified under the Voting Rights Act to address Virginia's past systemic discrimination of minority voters. But the lawsuit – financed by a group known as Campaign for a Color-Blind America – said the plan amounted to modern-day segregation.
In 1997, a three-judge panel ruled the District boundaries unconstitutional and ordered the General Assembly to redraw the lines.
In 1998, the General Assembly passed a revised plan to reunite a number of localities that had been split, but kept the 3rd District’s black voting-age population at 50.4%.
The 3rd District boundaries were changed again following the 2000 Census. The 2012 General Assembly enacted a plan that increased the black voting-age population to 53.1%.
Ten years later, the General Assembly redrew congressional districts again, as scheduled, after adjusting for population shifts found in the 2010 Census. The black voting-age population increased to 56.3%
In 2013, a new lawsuit – this one filed by Democratic voters – claimed the new boundaries of the 3rd District unconstitutionally harmed African-Americans by reducing their influence in surrounding districts.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court found that the General Assembly erred by making racial considerations the predominant factor in drawing the lines. Because the General Assembly failed to meet a September 1 deadline, the court will issue a map that will bring the 3rd District into compliance for the next congressional elections, scheduled for November 2016.
Sept. 1, 2015