Redistricting can be done a better way

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Print this page by Robert Powell

Now that voters have chosen their lawmakers, it is time for lawmakers to choose their voters.

Next year, many state legislatures, including Virginia’s, will go through the exercise of redrawing legislative and congressional districts. In theory, legislators are shifting the lines to accommodate population changes reflected in the latest census. In actuality, the process often leads to gerrymandering, manipulating the boundaries for political advantage.

Redistricting doesn’t have to be handled this way. In a growing number of states, this responsibility is handled by an independent commission rather than the legislature.

In Virginia, however, the General Assembly still is entrusted with the power to change legislative and congressional districts. Legislators likely will redraw the map in a special session next spring after they get final census data.

For the first time in recent memory, control of the legislature is divided, with Democrats controlling the Senate and Republicans dominating the House of Delegates. Each body is expected to draw a map for its districts, which then must be approved by the other house, the governor and the U.S. Justice Department (in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act). The real fighting probably will take place over reapportionment of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts.

The commonwealth has had opportunities to change this process as recently as the last legislative session. During his campaign last year, Gov. Bob McDonnell, endorsed the concept of a bipartisan redistricting commission. Nonetheless, a redistricting reform bill proposed by his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, died in the House of Delegates after being passed by the Senate 39-0.

For years The League of Women Voters of Virginia has been a leader in a coalition pushing for change in redistricting. “The current system of redistricting in Virginia encourages partisan gerrymandering, which creates seats so politically skewed that the opposition has little chance of unseating the incumbent,” the League asserts on its website.

It blames the creation of these safe seats to the lack of competition in state elections. The League notes that 32 of 100 members of the House of Delegates faced no opposition in 2009 and only a dozen races were considered competitive.

Olga Hernandez, the League’s president, says that safe seats have contributed to the increasingly inflexible partisanship in politics. With seats securely in the hands of one party or another, the real competition takes place in primaries. These contests tend to attract a small percentage of the electorate, party activists on the far left or far right who demand that candidates meet “purity tests” on certain issues. As a result, elected officials become more concerned about satisfying a zealous base than finding compromise with the opposing party. “The center gets lost,” Hernandez says. “We see this at the national level and in Virginia, too”
Like the Byrd Machine that ran Virginia politics for decades in the 20th century, the current redistricting process is a political relic. It needs to be retired.

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