Compactness is in the eye of the beholder

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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“Fairly debatable” was the key phrase in Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant’s recent ruling in favor of the defendants in a redistricting lawsuit.  So it goes in the ongoing saga of court fights over Virginia’s voting districts.

“Compactness,” a mandatory criteria set by the Virginia Constitution, is apparently in the eye of the beholder when it comes to the shape of Virginia’s legislative districts, or so the testimony went before Marchant’s court in March.

A lawsuit — funded by One­­­­­­­­­Virginia2021, a group seeking redistricting reform — sought to overturn the boundaries of five House of Delegates and six state Senate districts set by the General Assembly in 2011. The suit asserts that the districts’ compactness was compromised by discretionary criteria considered by legislators in redrawing the lines.

In addition to being compact, the Virginia Constitution mandates that districts be close to equal in population and be composed of geographically contiguous parcels of land.

The redrawn maps also must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law says districts cannot be drawn in a manner that dilutes minority voting power.

When it comes to non-mandatory redistricting criteria, factors that tend to maintain the status quo come into play. These include avoiding: shifts in the core population composition of each district, grouping two incumbents in the same district and splitting municipalities into more than one district.

As a group, these non-mandatory criteria often are considered helpful in maintaining a “community of interests” within districts.  On the whole, it seems that the idea of a community of interests is a functional surrogate for keeping incumbents in office.  In other words, a community of interests primarily means keeping the status quo intact.

All of this works pretty well for members of the General Assembly.  It is rare that more than half of Virginia’s 100 House seats face contested races. 

One of the arguments used to justify our current legislative districts is that they were passed with bipartisan support.  Perhaps minority party members feel it’s best to compromise and stay in office.

Gerrymandering is a tool that has been used by both parties.  When the Democrats controlled the House of Delegates and the Senate, they did their best to tilt district maps in favor of keeping control.  Now Republicans are doing the same.

When redrawn district maps were first presented to Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2011, he vetoed the Senate map on the basis that it was not as compact as required by law and favored Democrats who then held a slim majority in the Senate.  A slightly revised version of the map later was approved.

Legal challenges to redistricting are not uncommon.  When lawsuits challenging congressional districts are included along with those involving state legislative districts, nearly a dozen court cases have been filed contesting the 2011 reapportionment.  Some of these cases have gone to trial, and some have not.  In some cases, appeals are still pending.

Notably, a federal court case, Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, is pending.  The plaintiffs in this case assert that too many minority voters were packed into a single legislative district to maintain the incumbents’ strength in surrounding districts.

Bethune-Hill made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The opinion, handed down in March, was more or less an exercise in judicial pingpong.  The case was affirmed in part, vacated in part and remanded to the lower court for further consideration.  And so it goes, in the ongoing saga of redistricting.

Partisan redistricting is a long-established practice. Democrats and Republicans alike have used it to solidify their control of our political process.  It’s time for this to come to an end.  Virginia needs a nonpartisan process.  The requirements of the state constitution should come first, rather than being subordinated to the interests of incumbents of either party.

Unfortunately self-interest by legislators predominates over the interest of the commonwealth. Voters understand this problem.  Unfortunately, the General Assembly is happy for it to remain “fairly debatable.”

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