Campaign to change redistricting begins to gather steam

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Print this page by Robert Powell
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OneVirginia2021 aims to redraw district boundaries.
AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown

“Laws are like sausage,” an old saying goes. “It’s better not to see them being made.”

If the process of making laws is ugly, the procedure used by most states to redraw legislative and congressional districts is downright repulsive, and it ought to stop. 

In the majority of states, including Virginia, sitting legislators have the power to redraw their own districts (and those of the congressional delegation) every 10 years to adjust to population shifts reflected in the latest Census.

The process is an exercise in naked power politics. Essentially, legislators choose their voters. Their first priority is to ensure their own re-election. Their second goal is to cripple the opposing party.  Creating cohesive districts that meet the needs of their constituents? That’s somewhere at the bottom of the list.

My first exposure to this legislative butchery came years ago in Georgia, my native state. A veteran state senator had barely survived two strong challenges from a popular politician in his district, the mayor of my mother’s hometown. The senator’s one ambition in redrawing his district was to eviscerate his challenger’s power base. 

When the initial redistricting map was unveiled, the mayor’s town had been sliced to pieces. A community with fewer than 10,000 residents had been divided among three senatorial districts. At the urging of the mayor, the town eventually was moved entirely to a new district, giving the community coherent representation in the General Assembly but also granting the grizzled old senator his wish.

In the years since that incident, the redistricting practices of most legislatures have not improved.  Nationwide, the process has created gerrymandered “safe” districts so dominated by one party that incumbents face little chance of defeat in general elections. The real threats come from hard-line challengers from their own parties running in low-turnout primaries. The result is that state legislators and many members of Congress see no advantage in compromise with the opposing party.

The danger in straying from a strict party-line stance can be seen in the primary defeats last year of two veteran Republican legislators, Delegates Joe. T. May of Loudoun County and Beverly Sherwood of Frederick County. Their indiscretion was supporting a bipartisan, comprehensive transportation funding bill backed by a large swath of the Virginia business community.

(Democrats, I should point out, are not immune to hyper-partisanship. Remember Joe Lieberman? The Connecticut senator, who ran as the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate in 2000, was defeated in the Democratic primary in his re-election bid in 2006 because of his support for the war in Iraq. He nonetheless won the general election by running as an independent. )

In Richmond and in Washington, D.C., lawmakers’ fearful focus on the whims of their party base has contributed to gridlock on crucial issues. Their biggest concern is holding onto their seats for another term.
The role of the redistricting process in creating this political quagmire is no mystery. A growing number of states have taken steps to wrest redistricting powers from politicians. Twenty-one states now have independent redistricting commissions with varying responsibilities in redrawing the legislative and congressional districts.

Attempts have been made to create a similar body in Virginia with little success. For years, bills introduced in the General Assembly to create a bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting process have languished in a House subcommittee.

In 2011, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed a redistricting reform commission to recommend redistricting plans for legislative and congressional seats based on the Census of  2010. Those recommendations, however, were ignored by the General Assembly. The Senate, then controlled by Democrats, and the House, controlled by Republicans, drew the maps for their own seats.

Frustration with the General Assembly’s contempt for reform led a small group of Virginias last year to start a campaign aimed at changing the process before the next round of redistricting begins after the 2020 Census.

Their organization, OneVirginia2021, is raising money, circulating petitions and recruiting volunteers. So far, executive director Matt Scoble says, the organization has received pledges for about $250,000 and seen resolutions passed by several localities, including Williamsburg and Blacksburg, calling on the legislature to change the process.

There is a sense of urgency in this cause. Taking the redistricting power away from the legislature and giving it to an independent commission will require amending the state constitution. That is a lengthy process that entails two votes by the General Assembly — with an election in between — and a public referendum.

The campaign is bolstered by the results of a 2013 survey of 1,000 Virginia residents by the University of Mary Washington. It found that that 74 percent of respondents want an independent board — not the legislature — to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries.  Only 15 percent favored leaving the process in legislators’ hands. The remaining 11 percent were undecided.

According to its website, people   involved in OneVirginia2021 include Bill Bolling, Virginia’s lieutenant governor from 2006 to 2014; Leigh Middleditch, co-founder of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership; Greg Lucyk, retired chief staff attorney for the Virginia Supreme Court; former Delegates Dave Nutter and Shannon Valentine; and A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor who led the commission that wrote Virginia’s current constitution.

OneVirginia2021 held a legislative summit in Charlottesville in late September to come up with criteria for redistricting reform, and it will sponsor a series of town meetings throughout the state, beginning in Danville and Williamsburg in October.

“We are organizing to show legislators that we do have the majority on this,” Scoble says. “They need to let redistricting reform become a reality.”

Reform should be a high priority issue in legislative races next year. Some of the butchers in the sausage factory need to get the boot.

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