In redistricting, geography is destiny

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Bernie Niemeier photo by Mark Rhodes

Depending on when you read this you will either be about to cast votes on November’s ballot or you will have already cast them.  Regardless of the choices, I encourage everyone to exercise their civic duty.

Paraphrasing T.S. Eliot, November is the cruelest month.  Some candidates will be hired and others will be fired.  Who will be the biggest loser?

The good news is that at the top of the ballot for presidential candidates votes are very meaningful.  In down ticket races by congressional district, the results are more dependent on how districts are drawn by the General Assembly.  In these bespoke districts, the process is more a matter of politicians choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians.

This problem is not unique to Virginia. The Cook Political Report, which rates political races on their competitiveness, says only 24 of the 435 House of Representatives seats up for election this year were considered to be competitive — only about 6 percent!

In Virginia, with 11 congressional districts, there were at least two candidates running in all but one race. In District 11, Democratic incumbent Gerry Connolly of Fairfax County was unopposed.  The Cook Report, nonetheless, rated only a single race as competitive.  That’s District 10 in Northern Virginia, where Democrat LuAnn Bennett challenged Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock.  This tightly contested race has drawn a huge influx of out-of-state campaign dollars.

In Virginia’s congressional districts, Republicans hold eight seats and Democrats have only three.   In statewide races, an alternative reality emerges.  The commonwealth’s majority voted for a Democratic president in both 2008 and 2012. Democrats hold both of Virginia’s U.S. Senate seats.  In 2013 Democrats won all statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. So why the difference?

In fairness, it is by design.  Dividing the state into districts ensures that different regions have an opportunity to select their own representatives.  This helps to balance power across the entire state.  Rural regions and urban regions have different needs, all of which should be fairly represented.

Here’s the rub: Who draws the congressional districts?  It is supposed to be done by state legislators (who also draw their own districts) following specific criteria, not including easy re-election for incumbents.

Redistricting is done every 10 years after the completion of the U.S. Census.  The Virginia Constitution provides that districts should be drawn geographically compact, geographically contiguous and approximately equal in population.  The U.S. Voting Rights Act forbids districts designed to dilute the political influence of racial minorities.

During the past couple of years there have been numerous court challenges to redistricting schemes, in Virginia and other states.  Some have risen all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and others are ongoing.

While there isn’t room here to review these cases, suffice it to say that the courts have largely held against unfairly drawn districts.  In Virginia, a lawsuit led to the court-imposed redesign of the 3rd and adjacent congressional districts.

While Virginia’s legislative districts are reasonably equal in population and somewhat contiguous, they are hardly compact.  One­Virginia2021, an organization advocating fair redistricting, is seeking an amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would provide for an impartial commission to take the redistricting out of the hands of legislators.  Thirteen other states already use alternative approaches to an entirely legislative process.

How much difference would it make to get the foxes out of the henhouse?  Actually, it is likely that not much would change in terms of how districts might vote.

Compact districts might lead to a few more competitive races, but rural voters will still live in rural Virginia, urban voters will still live in the cities, with suburban voters in between.  Each of these constituencies will identify more with some issues than others and are drawn to politicians and parties who represent these issues best.

In other words, redrawing district lines doesn’t do much to change the large swaths of red and blue that differentiate various regions of the commonwealth.
Still, over time, there are changes.  More voters have migrated into suburban and urban areas as Virginia’s economy has become less agricultural and industrial and more driven by technology and professional services.

Demographics are changing, too. The rural population tends to be older and less diverse.  Most newcomers to Virginia wind up in the suburbs and urban areas.

With these population shifts more compact districts ultimately will lead to more districts being created in more populous parts of the state, diluting the influence of rural areas with lower population.

A wise demographer once told me that population shifts weren’t a matter of speculation or opinion — they are facts.  It is time for our legislative boundaries to fairly reflect the changes going on in Virginia.

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