Redistricting, why wait?

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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“If mandate of one-person-one vote was the generational issue of the 1960s, then eliminating political gerrymandering may be the issue of our time.” So says A.E. Dick Howard, constitutional scholar and professor of law at the University of Virginia.

Here’s why:

In last November’s statewide elections, 43 of the commonwealth’s 100 House of Delegates races were uncontested; another 13 elections were not contested by major party candidates.  As dismal as this sounds, it was only the second time in the last decade that more than half of Virginia’s 100 House seats faced contested races. 
Despite unhappiness with those elected to office, voters don’t have much choice when it comes to replacing them. One might conclude that there simply isn’t enough interest in public service, that fundraising and campaigns are simply too hard, or that annual pay of $17,640 for a member of the House of Delegates simply isn’t worth the effort.

House races are held every two years. Voter turnout is in the low 40 percent range when an election is accompanied by a governor’s race, but otherwise falls to the low 30 percent range.  On the other hand, turnout for presidential elections in Virginia exceeds 70 percent.

The reason we have uncompetitive races is that we have uncompetitive voting districts.  Boundaries are set once every 10 years (most recently in 2011) by the General Assembly after the release of population counts by the U.S. Census.  Growth in data on voters and their habits has enabled legislators — particularly those in power — to choose voters by how district lines are drawn.  These lines help ensure re-election and protect party power.

Virginia has a long history of voter suppression.  For much of the modern era, the commonwealth was essentially a one-party state with Democrats (conservatives back then) holding nearly all offices.  The Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed this by eliminating poll taxes, other registration requirements and mandating that districts be drawn as equally as practical to ensure the fairness of “one person, one vote.”

The Constitution of Virginia as amended and adopted in 1971 additionally required voting districts to be “compact and contiguous.”
Currently, 21 U.S. states use nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions to draw voting districts.  In 2009, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s campaign platform included support for a nonpartisan commission, and he appointed an advisory commission in 2011.  In 2012, the Virginia Senate unanimously approved a proposal for a bipartisan redistricting commission to be appointed by the state Supreme Court. A similar House bill failed to make it past a subcommittee, effectively killing the legislation. 

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe announced support for nonpartisan redistricting in a recent appearance before the Virginia League of Women Voters, a
longtime advocate of such reform.

But change won’t come easily. It requires an amendment to the Virginia Constitution. An amendment begins with a bill being passed by the Virginia General Assembly, followed by a statewide election for the House of Delegates.  An identical bill must then be passed by the next assembly. Finally, amendments must go before voters in a statewide referendum.  If such legislation were successful in 2014, the earliest it could be put to a statewide vote would be 2016.

State Sen. John C. Miller of Newport News has prepared a bill that could put a bipartisan redistricting commission on the ballot in 2014.  Nonetheless, as currently written, the results of this referendum “shall be advisory only,” thus stalling constitutional reform until at least  2018.  Before long it will be 2020, new census data will be collected and the party bosses will have another chance to pick their voters.

One Virginia 2021: Citizens for Fair Redistricting is an organization being led by Charlottesville lawyer Leigh  Middleditch with help from Bob Gibson, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, among others.  Many community leaders, including James Ukrop and E. Bryson Powell of Richmond and Judy Ford Wason of Williamsburg have worked to promote nonpartisan redistricting for years. Yet a lack of success in getting the General Assembly to give up control has made fundraising a challenge.

Another route to solve political fixing is through the courts.  Seven lawsuits have been filed since 2011.  Some have been withdrawn but potentially could be refiled.  

There have been several such suits since the constitutional reform of 1971. In general, the Supreme Court of Virginia has been reluctant to enforce the mandate that districts should be compact and contiguous.  Perhaps the arguments have been poorly reasoned.

The problem with a court-mandated solution is that it would only put the process back into the hands of legislators to come up with a short-term remedy.  Only constitutional reform can bring about a permanent solution. According to Middleditch, “One Virginia 2021 has no illusions about the difficulty; it is a long-term process.”

At Virginia Business, we say, “Why wait?”  If the General Assembly wants to pursue fairness and put aside partisanship, then pass a bill in 2014 to start the process of constitutional reform.  The closer we get to 2021, the more difficult it will be for legislators to give up the power to pick voters.  Let’s do the right thing now.

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