Time is up on redistricting

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If there is one thing on which the Democrats and the Republicans in the General Assembly will always disagree, it’s got to be redistricting.  Sure, there are many other areas where they don’t, shall we say, quite see eye-to-eye, but squabbling over how to craft legislative boundaries is among the most egregious.

After court cases with varying results in state and federal courts, our legislators’ preferred approach seems to be letting the judges decide Virginia’s district boundaries.  Even with a special session called to deal with court orders on this particular piece of legislative business, our lawmakers have thrown up their hands.  Republicans didn’t have the votes to override a Democratic governor’s veto power.  The governor didn’t want a protracted and unproductive session.  The solution?  Leave it to the courts to decide.

In a new twist in the saga, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Republicans’ appeal of a lower court’s decision to redraw the districts, but it is unclear whether that will halt the process.

The irony is not so much that Democrats and Republicans disagree.  They actually share the same goals: to ensure party power and protect incumbents’ seats for at least the next decade.  Given the chance, both parties have demonstrated their proclivity for doing just that.

The irony is that party power and the protection of incumbents are not among the criteria set for redistricting in the Virginia Constitution.  Quoting the constitution, “Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.” 

The constitution makes no mention of criteria like maintaining political power or keeping incumbents in office.

Perhaps a final irony is that, given recent trends, it just doesn’t matter so much anymore how the districts are set, at least not so much for Democrats.

Much has been written about the urban-rural divide in American politics.  At one time, suburban voters tended to vote more like rural voters, more Republican and less Democratic, but now that trend has shifted.  Suburban voters, especially women, are voting more in alignment with the urban areas.

Take Virginia’s 7th District in November’s election as an example.  The 7th is often talked of as a broad swath of land, including  all or part of 10 counties. It runs from Nottoway County in the south to Culpeper County in the north, taking in western parts of Chesterfield and Henrico counties along the way.  It may be contiguous, but it’s far from compact.

Of the 349,297 total votes cast in the 7th district, 221,022 or 63 percent came from the Henrico and Chesterfield suburbs.  The suburban votes were overwhelmingly Democratic.  Without exception, every other county in the 7th leaned heavily Republican, but it’s almost as if those rural votes did not count at all.

Population trends have been tilting the table in favor of the Democrats for decades.  This change finally is hitting home for Republicans — big time.

Before Abigail Spanberger defeated U.S. Rep. Dave Brat last month, the 7th district had been reliably conservative, even after U.S. courts redrew congressional boundaries in 2016. That year Brat won with 57.5 percent of the vote. This year he received 48.4 percent, compared with Spanberger’s 50.34 percent.

Redistricting is a real opportunity for Democrats. With these trends in place and every seat in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate coming up for election next year, it is very possible that Democrats will end up controlling both houses, as well as occupying the governor’s mansion.

So, what’s the opportunity?  Democrats don’t need gerrymandered districts anymore.  They don’t need to squander their political power to upend Republican opponents for another decade after the upcoming 2020 U.S. census.

The time is up for playing games with electoral maps.  It’s time for the General Assembly to pass a constitutional amendment to turn the redistricting process over to a nonpartisan committee.

That’s just the first step. Any amendment to Virginia’s constitution also requires approval again by the General Assembly after the next election. Then it is put before voters in a statewide referendum, and only if approved would the amendment be ratified. The 2019 General Assembly is the last chance to start this process in time for redistricting after the 2020 census.

Several legislators already have signed on to a joint resolution creating a redistricting commission. Let’s hope it doesn’t share the same fate as previous resolutions on the topic. Time is of the essence. The time to start is now.

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