General Assembly dodges latest attempts at redistricting reform

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

After years of significant pressure on the governor’s office and the legislature to adopt a nonpolitical process, 2011 showed a promising start for redistricting. Gov. Bob McDonnell formed an independent, bipartisan advisory commission and a competition had college students drawing their own maps — without regard to incumbent status or political sway.

So, how did Virginia’s voters fare in this once-in-a-decade game of legislative redistricting?  According to a little-reported study released in April by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, they may be worse off than before.  Among the report’s conclusions, “The maps presented to the Governor by the General Assembly would make a bad situation worse for the coming decade.”

Based on the results thus far, as the legislature meets to draw Virginia’s 11 U.S. congressional districts, voters will likely see more of the same.

Critics warn that gerrymandered districts, which, in essence, allow elected officials to choose their voters, ultimately lead to political polarization. “Safe” seats favoring one party or another not only discourage challengers in general elections, but also force incumbents to hew to party orthodoxy to win primaries, thus increasing partisan gridlock and diminishing the art of compromise so necessary to effective statesmanship.
The Wason Center, directed by Quentin Kidd, was one of two sponsors of the Virginia Redistricting Competition.  The other sponsor was the Public Mapping Project, led by Michael McDonald of George Mason University and Micah Altman of Harvard University. Participating in the competition were 16 teams from 13 colleges and universities across Virginia. 

The results of the collegiate competition were presented at public hearings and used by McDonnell’s commission to help formulate their final recommendations. 

Four criteria were used to compare the winning maps from the collegiate competition with those recommended by the governor’s advisory commission and maps from the General Assembly.  They were equal population, voting rights considerations, maintenance of county and city boundaries and compactness.
The equal population benchmark refers to a goal of having an equal number of people in each legislative district, preserving the principle of “one person, one vote.”  Federal law gives states broad latitude in redistricting, allowing population deviations of as much as 10 percent when necessary to meet other requirements.

Voting rights considerations refer to the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965.  This benchmark is used to ensure that redistricting does not dilute the ability of minority groups to elect a candidate of their choice.
Maintaining county and city boundaries helps districts to conform to established communities of common interest, reduces voter confusion and saves localities from the expense of redrawing voting precincts.
Compactness helps to avoid districts that connect communities of differing interests.  Compactness is measured by how much of the area in a perfect circle drawn around the district is accounted for by the district itself.

The Wason Center report compared the maps produced by winners of the collegiate competition with those recommended by the advisory commission and the maps initially approved by the General Assembly.
The legislators did a good job of adhering to the equal population requirement, with an average population deviation of less than 2 percent for the Senate map and less than 1 percent for the House of Delegates map.
But the General Assembly had less regard for all other criteria. The maps produced by the collegiate competition and the advisory commission all had significantly better scores.

These alternative proposals achieved their results while meeting the equal population objective. Population variances were still less than 2 percent for both the Senate and House maps.

It’s no surprise that the nonpartisan advisory commission and collegiate maps look much different than the legislature’s final result. (The center concluded that the changes that ultimately received approval after an initial veto from Gov. Bob McDonnell weren’t significant enough to warrant further study.)

The Wason Center study shows the redistricting process can be successfully handled by someone other the legislature.  It’s a lesson that should have been learned before producing another poorly drawn set of districts that will affect elections for the next 10 years.

A potential change to this outcome would be if the U.S. Justice Department challenges the still-to-be-approved congressional maps.  This is only likely if the congressional maps turn out to be regressive with respect to minority voter rights.  Otherwise, it looks like Virginia is faced with 10 years of more partisanship and less statesmanship. 

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