Thinking about Virginia Gerrymandering: Bethune-Hill & the Efficiency Gap

Gerrymandering concepts are perhaps the most important-yet-tedious aspect of political activism. The court cases are lengthy, complex, involve tons of math, and usually result in an impressive amount of double-speak in a desperate attempt to avoid charges of race-based redistricting. Racial gerrymandering is strictly illegal, as outlined by the Civil Rights Act and upheld by a series of Supreme Court decisions such as Shaw v. Reno, (1993), Miller v. Johnson (1995), and League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry (2006), yet partisan redistricting has been held legal since the Davis v. Bandemer (1986) decision. Under this decision, gerrymandering has progressed to a point where party division is at it’s worst… and it’s steadily progressing even further.

In our GOP-dominated politics of 2017, it seems that the public are finally waking up to the damages caused by irresponsible redistricting. In 2010-11, Republicans used their massive post-Obama gains to redistrict wide regions of the United States in an unethical and sometimes illegal way. North Carolina was perhaps the worst offender and courts are remedying that situation, albeit quite slowly.

In Virginia, the state legislature controls redistricting. Decisions made in 2011 by the GOP were a farce, and these decisions have a far-reaching effect beyond elections. Such gerrymandering affects the ability of gerrymandered candidates, who are usually racial or ethnic minorities, to make the jump from local to state-level candidacy; it creates an imbalance in our bicameral legislature; and it foments further radical partisanship, as seen with the radicalization of the right through figureheads like Corey Stewart.

Restricting State-Level Candidates

Virginia has only ever elected one African-American official for state-level office. Douglas Wilder served as Lt. Governor and Governor from 1985 to 1993 by making the successful jump from District 9’s State Senator. Wilder served as Senator for fourteen years uncontested which makes his ability to jump into contested statewide elections all the more impressive. Other than Wilder, minority candidates have been met with an utter lack of success but now for for a lack of trying. Black candidates are much more likely than white candidates to come from districts targeted by recent redistricting lawsuits (3/5 for African Americans, 3/25 for white).

The Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Bd. of Elections (2017) court case seems to have a clear and present effect on Virginia elections. A lack of minority candidates defines the three statewide offices (Justin Fairfax not withstanding), but election results suggest gerrymandering and uncontested elections play a significant role in the lack of success for African-American state-level candidate success. All three African-American members of the House of Delegates to run for statewide office (Baskerville, Jones, McEachin) came from districts eventually included in Bethune-Hill. Delegates and State Senators are much more likely to meet success in Attorney General (AG) elections, but minority AG candidates are uncommon (21 candidates, two were African American & two women) and unsuccessful (excepting Mary Sue Terry, 1985 & 1989).

Gerrymandering creates a tough road for candidates — and especially African-American candidates — As of this writing, it seems that African Americans are much more likely to see statewide election success coming from a background outside of the Virginia legislature, such as with the close primary loss of Justin Fairfax or the surprise candidacy of Earl Walker Jackson.

Virginia’s Efficiency Gap

A study that every gerrymandering nerd must read is Nicholas Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee’s work in developing the efficiency gap statistic. The efficiency gap is remarkably simple to understand, calculate, and interpret. Basically, the statistic finds a ratio between each party’s “wasted votes” in contested elections defined as any vote either for a (1) losing candidate or (2) in excess of the number needed for election. The statistic can then be applied to estimate how many seats won by the favored party were due to gerrymandering. Stephanopoulos and McGhee’s suggested critical value threshold for “presumptive unconstitutionality” of a state house redistricting plan is 8%. This theoretical measure serves as the cornerstone of ongoing Supreme Court case Gill v. Whitford. Arguments will be heard this October and, most likely, the decision will determine the future of both this statistic and the legality of partisan gerrymandering. As McGhee points out though, the efficient gap is a statistic, not a test, that should be used by the courts to “decide for themselves what makes the most sense for the country.”

Returning to Virginia, the state House of Delegates is one of the worst efficiency gap offenders in the nation. Virginia blew past this 8% threshold in the late-2000s and continues to get worse. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Virginia’s House of Delegates was firmly within an acceptable efficiency gap range. By the 2000s, the gap slipped toward the threshold in favor of Republicans, sitting at about 6%, before doubling to about 12% in 2012. Only Wyoming was clearly worse then Virginia in their efficiency gap bias and Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Florida were all roughly equal.

I just calculated the data for Virginia based on the most recent state elections in 2015. Things have only gotten worse. The efficiency gap in the 2015 House of Delegates election was 15.3%, nearly double the proposed threshold. This is even worse than was seen in Wisconsin, the state serving as a test case in the ongoing Gill v. Whitford, and there is a serious case to be made in Virginia in the same .

Making Change

As for future research, the next steps are to (1) investigating nearby states with significant gerrymandering issues, (2) investigating Virginia elections in more qualitative detail, especially those in gerrymandered districts (Baskerville, Jones, McEachin), and/or (3) identifying districts that were historically gerrymandered (from 1991-2001 and/or 2001-2011) even if not challenged in court.

As for the efficiency gap, Virginians could and should continue to challenge the House redistricting. It may be too late to see serious redistricting before the next round in 2021, but a legal challenge could set new state-level guidelines and boundaries on whatever party controls that planning. One Virginia 2021 is mounting that campaign as well as a number of lawsuits that look promising no matter your party affiliation.

As for me, I’ll just keep yelling into the abyss.

The Roanoke Phantom, pt. 1

While digging around in some court records for an unrelated project, I came across the tale of the Roanoke Phantom. I found his story to be one of the most ridiculous ever, so I decided to write it all up and share it here. Enjoy.

All of the following events are true and took place in the latter half of 1993. All text images are directly from federal court records.

The Roanoke Phantom is not a local folk legend, although maybe he could have been. Here’s a guy who, among other things, drunkenly sang “Don’t fuck with the chuck” – a line from Child’s Play 3 – to commercial airline pilots while the FBI listened. This is a guy who led multiple federal agencies on a wild goose chase only to be caught because a vanity license plate. This is a guy who used his wife’s disability checks to buy radio equipment. This is a guy who managed to call in a bomb threat to the jail in which he was imprisoned. And all of this resulted in a decade-long federal prison sentence and one hell of an FBI report.

For about two months, the Roanoke Phantom broadcast unauthorized radio messages to anyone who would listen at the Roanoke airport, including pilots in the air, ground facilities, and remote technicians. At one point, the Phantom was being tracked by three separate federal agencies – FBI, FCC, and FAA – who were all trying to bring about an arrest on federal charges. Enough havoc had been caused by early September that the FAA recorded a special automated information system broadcast specifically warning incoming flights of the “phantom” controller in the area.

At first, the Phantom started out harmless enough. He sang, mimicked actual air traffic controllers, and yelled drunken nonsense. At first, this was kind of hilarious if you ignore the obvious danger, but his rantings soon escalated. He harassed a female air traffic controller, made threats to shoot down aircraft, and loudly transmitted recorded music, weather reports, and arguments with his wife (thus drowning out actual transmissions).

Messing around with aircraft radio communication is a big deal. Two federal felonies are of relevance here. Per Title 18, Section 32: “whoever wilfully… (6) communicates information, knowing the information to be false, and under circumstances in which such information may reasonably be believed, thereby endangering the safety of any aircraft in flight…shall be fined not more than $100,000 or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.”

Profanity is taken seriously too:

Needless to say, if the Phantom were to get caught, he was in some serious trouble. Engineers and technicians recorded a handful of Phantom transmissions and actively traced dozens hoping to triangulate the source. They succeeded several times, but failed to discover tthe Phantom himself for good reason – broadcasts originated from a moving source. Many times, the transmissions would stop moving and technicians would close in, only to find the operator gone once they arrived. Logically, airport officials guessed the Phantom was driving around in a car while transmitting. Finding this car and the individual behind it was beyond the reach of airport employees, so they were forced to appeal to the federal justice system.

David Frey, an FBI special agent with two years experience, was assigned the task of tracking down these illegal radio communications. Most sources used here are derived from Frey’s official FBI brief on the case submitted for use at trial. One of Frey’s tasks was to document all of the Phantom’s criminal activity, which he did with this amazing timeline partially re-created below.

1 Aug, 4:00pm – The Phantom contacted a ComAir flight and invited the crew to smoke some pot with him after they landed.

15 Aug, 7:15pm – The same voice transmitted the following frequency 118.3 MHz (Roanoke Tower): Nobody fucks with the Chuck / (inaudible) body fucks with the Chuck / Don’t fuck with the Chuck / (inaudible) fuck with the chuck

22 Aug, 10:02pm; 23 Aug, 1:50pm ; 2 Sep, 7:00am– The same voice contacted a commercial airliner and instructed they “break off” their landing. The next day, he informed a Cessna three times that they were not cleared to land. About a week later, he contacted a Beechcraft to inform the pilot that he missed his approach. An air traffic controller got involved at this point and reissued clearance to land.

2 Sep, 4:00pm; 3 Sep, 6:22pm – Phantom transmitted multiple “Mayday” distress calls identifying himself as the pilot of a Cessna. 

4 Sep, 3:26pm, 4:51pm, 6:22pm, & 8:10pm – The same individual acquired a voice disguising device, probably a cheap megaphone or kid’s toy, but only used it to reel off some expletives for no real reason. He’d also yell out false information on several occasions only to interrupt himself by screaming “April fool!” before going radio silent.

8 Sep, 10:00am to Noon – Phantom continued interrupting flight clearances, masquerading as the Roanoke Memorial Hospital helicopter, and imitating flights. By this point, he had learned a bit about air traffic controllers. For instance, the Phantom instructed commercial flights to execute a missed approach.

Either way, the Phantom also claimed he was done for a while on this evening.

11 Sep, 10:28pm – The Phantom lied.

Next time: The Roanoke Phantom gets caught thanks to a September 13th transmission, the power of alcohol, and a vanity license plate.

Spontaneous Protest & Talk-Back Boards

The past week has been tough. I go through my daily routine and spend a lot of time retreating into my family, both to provide and receive support. My teaching job has also been a lot, lot more difficult. I spent several hours in my office today consoling two minority students who are afraid they or their families will be deported — and they’re all US citizens born in Texas.

Through the nightmare, people have tried to make sense of America’s new reality with a simple tool — the post-it note. If you’re reading this, you may know that my dissertation was on the use of post-it notes and talk-back boards in museums to develop better visitor engagement, inform museum staff, and potentially encourage historical empathy. These spontaneous talk-back boards appearing in places like Union Square and on college campuses are rooted in protest, healing, and outrage are different, but too similar for me to ignore.

With both spontaneous and museum talk-back boards, people seek public interaction and usually express thoughts they may not vocalize. At the museums I’ve studied, a range of difficult subjects appeared, sometimes in strange locations: arguments for (and against) the Equal Rights Amendment at a women’s history site, stories about discrimination at a large American history museum, and discussions of LGBT rights at a civil war museum. Talk-back respondents seek solace in this momentary expression and in knowing other visitors feel the same way. Many expressed love and hope; many expressed fear and doubt. But each post-it note creates a moment where public sentiment becomes tangible, visible, and physical. The same can be said of spontaneous talk-back boards, although the emotional content is much more visible. These notes comes from the heart, from a place that is largely inaccessible except through deep, long, meaningful conversations. That’s part of the reason why these boards are special.

New York Union Square, Subway Therapy
New York Union Square, Subway Therapy

This past week, Manhattan’s Union Square spontaneously transformed into a site of protest, healing, outrage, and love. The project was spurred by Matthew “Levee” Chavez, the guy who came up with Subway Therapy, who encouraged subway travelers to place post-it notes on the tiled subway walls underneath the words “Express Yourself.” Chavez supplied the pens and paper; New Yorkers supplied the rest. In his most recent blog post, he channeled “Express Yourself” into a message of hope:

Do not just be upset. Do not just be angry. Do not just be fearful. Do not let your energy and power go to waste. Do something that is good. Encourage healthy conversation. Be good to one another. Do something that helps people to understand each other. Channel your energy into something that will bring people together. If I can do it, you can do it.

Union Square, NYC. Photo by Stephanie Wagner.

Again, some people expressed love and hope, including the following responses: “Stay Safe”, “Love is always the only way…”, “FIGHT hate with love”, “People show love for all”, “Inspire each other we need it :)”, and “love is the sweetest thing.” Many others expressed fear and doubt, most often channeled through clear anger: “Fuck Fascists”, “Still with HER!”, “We must remove the mask! God Help us”, and “my sadness for our country is real.” With all their different perspectives, New Yorkers are coming together over their great social anxieties. This wall in particularly is special because it gives us a glimpse at a city’s public discourse, public sentiment, and public memory, constructs that are typically only theoretical or observed through formalized surveys.

This board has clearly struck a nerve and is inspiring others. Post-its of inclusiveness and support appeared in New York subway cars; dozens of similar post-it notes appeared in Dundas Station in Toronto; and female high-school students are using the technique to protest within their schools’ hallways and bathrooms. Another example comes from MIT where students put up posters on campus encouraging others to publicly share their hopes and fears.

This use of post-it notes for protest and healing has precedence in museums and on college campuses. Last year, a number of these spontaneous talk-back protests emerged in connection with Black Lives Matter and the debate surrounding monuments to Confederates and slaveholders. Most notable was when students at the University of Missouri affixed post-it notes reading “slave seller”, “racist”, and “rapist” to a statue of Thomas Jefferson on campus. According to organizers, the main goal here was to engage the past and confront its ugly aspects head-on: “It’s a symbol of violence to many students. We talk about wanting to fix the culture of sexual violence and racism on campus, but that its here. What really are the values of the University of Missouri?” In this moment, students used the post-it note to question their surroundings and, like New York, to express thoughts that cannot be easily expressed through other mediums. Further, both the Mizzou students and New Yorkers likely feel they never had a platform to express these thoughts and, albeit small, the talk-back boards serve that purpose. Finally, these boards typically emerge spontaneously, but both MIT and Union Square prove these moments can be catalyzed into creation just as they are in museums. In this way, these public protest boards are highly similar, perhaps functionally identical, to museum talk-back boards. The major difference is that spontaneous boards typically emerge out of disturbances in public sensibilities, such as the 2016 election or a police shooting.

A writer for Hyperallergenic — Allison Meier — described a similar post-911 New York phenomenon as “Like the sticky notes, they’re unmonumental, unfiltered, but each is a personal action, and in their number is a powerful solidarity.” I agree with Allison on virtually everything she says in her article except for one word: unmonumental. Monuments (and talk-back boards) are fundamental expressions of a society’s deeply held values and both reflect and affect public memory. Like talk-back boards, monuments are not permanent, but are meant to commemorate through public expression. In this way, these talk-back boards are monuments, just they do not look like a standard built structure with which we are familiar.

One Twitter user coined the phrase “Walls of Empathy” in describing a spontaneous post-it note display in a San Francisco BART station, which is a great name for this phenomenon — but it does have limits. There have been plenty of calls for empathy in the past few weeks, most often specifically aimed at educated liberals who scoff at white Trump voters. These “walls of empathy” are a starting point to address this supposed liberal shortcoming, at least in places with a concentrated population. Spontaneous boards help people better understand their neighbors, some of whom they may vehemently disagree with (but may never vocalize those disagreements). But do not confuse the need for “walls of empathy” as a need to empathize with all. Empathy is not sympathy, and empathizing with a person — or a voter — does not mean accepting their entire perspective. A huge portion of Trump’s support is based in hate, xenophobia, and bigotry. Empathize with voter’s legitimate economic concerns, but do not forget that outright bigotry (or a willingness to allow bigotry) strongly motivated a huge percentage of these voters as well.

To conclude this incredibly jumbled post…this is still a tough time, but one NYC post-it note (left, below) seems to have captured the combination of hope and cynical laughter that I needed right now. This is indeed the only wall we need, but it’s still not enough. As another writer (right, below) expressed across six notes, “Theres not enough post its in the world for people to say what they want.” No doubt.