Voting districts in play

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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Photo by Adrienne R. Watson

In late May, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear Evenwel v. Abbott, a Texas case that challenges the practice of creating legislative districts based on total population, rather than the number of eligible voters.

If successful, the effect of the appellants’ case would be to shift voting power from typically liberal, densely populated urban centers with more children and non-citizens, to more sparsely populated rural areas with a higher percentage of older, mostly white and more likely conservative voters.

The argument against using a total population approach in redistricting is that this method creates more districts in areas with higher populations but fewer eligible voters. That situation, the critics say, distorts the one-person, one-vote principle set by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Larger numbers of voters, the

reasoning goes, wind up being represented by fewer elected officials.
There is a thread of logic in that argument, but elected officials always have represented the interests of more than just the voting public. Children and other non-voting persons have always been included in redistricting calculations throughout our history. 

The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States begins with “We the People,” not we the voters.
It is worth mentioning that those bringing this case are backed by the Project on Fair Representation, a Texas-based conservative group whose leadership has also been involved in cases attacking affirmative action and elements of the Voting Rights Act.

In defending the state’s voting districts, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, argued that the plaintiffs, cite “no case where the Constitution compels states to apportion districts based on voter population… and multiple cases confirm that total population is a permissible apportionment base under the Equal Protection Clause.”  Nevertheless, the Supremes are scheduled to hear the case in October.

So, what does this have to do with Virginia?  In June, a three judge panel of the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled by a 2-1 margin that Virginia’s congressional boundaries are unconstitutional because race was a predominant consideration, specifically packing black voters into the 3rd District to minimize black voting power in surrounding districts.  The court gave the General Assembly until Sept. 1 to come up with new boundaries.

Redistricting has been a hot-button topic with voters, less so with politicians.  Nonpartisan redistricting might eliminate the perception of foxes in the henhouse, with politicians picking their voters, but it might do little to change election results.  Much like the Texas case, geography is destiny in politics. 

Regardless of how voting districts are drawn, rural areas generally tend to be more conservative and urban areas are more liberal.  Getting the foxes out of the henhouse won’t change how people vote.

Racial disparities draw much attention and rightfully so.  Still an equal or perhaps even more powerful political dynamic is the interplay between rural and urban interests.  Rural areas long have been losing population to metro areas.  For decades, rural Virginia has been clinging to the remnants of its political power.

Population shifts may be the first step, but politics are played out, not just in voting booths but also in the statehouse.  Virginia distributes much of its general fund revenue to the localities based on formulas set by statute, in many cases unchanged for decades.

State funding for transportation, education and health is distributed in ways that are always complex and often arcane.  Among other things, the various formulas account for local income or ability to pay, highway miles, congestion and ability to provide matching funds.  In most cases, the result is a shift of tax dollars from higher-income, more densely populated urban areas to rural localities where less tax revenue is raised.

Other than their complexity, there’s little to argue with.  These formulas do what taxes are supposed to do by allocating funds based on local needs.  Still, in the political horse-trading that goes on to pass all kinds of legislation, keeping these formulas unchanged can be a prerequisite for rural legislative support.  The urban/rural dynamic also plays out in other areas such as the composition of the 18-member Commonwealth Transportation Board, which distributes funds for highway projects.

Going back to the redistricting issue, this magazine has long favored nonpartisan redistricting.

The federal appeals court’s recent ruling only puts the question back to the General Assembly.

OneVirginia2021, an organization promoting nonpartisan redistricting, plans to file suit soon in state court to compel lawmakers to follow the requirement set by Virginia’s constitution that voting districts be compact and contiguous.

Depending on the outcome of the Texas case before the U.S. Supreme Court, virtually everything we know about the composition of voting districts soon may come into play.

In politics, a chance to get things right is an increasing rarity.  Let’s hope this goes well.

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