What would a nonpartisan approach to redistricting look like? Still not great for Republicans

By: - September 7, 2018 6:01 am

Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, presides over a razor thin Republican majority. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Republicans in the House of Delegates reacted with outrage to Democrats’ redistricting proposal last week, arguing it would essentially hand the party five seats currently held by Republicans.

“This was clearly a nakedly partisan move across the board – no question about that,” said House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert. His party is currently holding on to its majority by a single seat.

Not even all Democrats were comfortable with the proposal. One, Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, called it gerrymandering in response to gerrymandering in a speech on the House floor.

And while that may very well be the case, complying with the federal court order to redraw the districts is a losing proposition for Republicans no matter how the lines are drawn. The only question is how losing.

“Black voters were packed into districts, now we have to spread them out,” House Minority Leader Del. David Toscano said. “It stands to reason that now some of those voters are moving into redder areas.”

So, what would a nonpartisan approach to complying with the court order look like and how bad would it be for Republicans?

Courtesy of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, we have an answer, and, going by past elections, Republicans don’t fare too much better than they did under the Democrats’ proposal.

The project, which aims to provide technical support to proponents of nonpartisan redistricting, took it upon itself to redraw the 11 districts ruled unconstitutional and the 22 adjoining districts without considering politics and instead focusing on keeping counties and cities together and splitting fewer voting precincts.In contrast, politicians typically focus on past election results to protect incumbents and boost their majority.

The result is a map with far fewer twists and turns that Ben Williams, a legal analyst at the project, says meets the requirements of the court order.

While politics didn’t factor in to the way the map was drawn, an after-the-fact analysis based on the results of the 2016 presidential election shows Republicans would likely lose four seats: just one less than under the Democrat’s plan.

While the outcome is still bad for Republicans, there are big differences between the Democrats’ plan and the nonpartisan approach. For one, it doesn’t protect incumbents from either party and at least one Democratic seat would go Republican.

Where things go from here remains unclear. Republicans so far haven’t indicated whether they plan to present their own redistricting proposal or offer amendments to Democrats’ proposed map, so we don’t know what a best case scenario looks like to them.

Instead they’ve focused on appealing the court order to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already ruled on the case once in an earlier decision. Observers say the approach suggests the party is hoping to delay any action until after next year’s elections, potentially giving them the opportunity to hold on to their majority long enough to still be in charge when it’s time to redraw the maps again in 2021.

If the Supreme Court declines to act on the Republicans’ petition and the General Assembly still hasn’t approved a redistricting plan by the Oct. 30 deadline, the court will take over and redraw the maps.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.