Redistricting: There’s a better way to do this

June 19, 2019 11:01 pm
Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, defended a remedial redistricting proposal that a House panel advanced Thursday on a party-line vote. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 27, 2018)

Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, defended a remedial redistricting proposal that a House panel advanced last year on a party-line vote. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Sept. 27, 2018)

Here we are, just a year and a half from the 2021 redistricting in the commonwealth, and Virginia finally has legitimate legislative and congressional maps following the politicized process in 2011.

This resolution comes by way of a U.S. Supreme Court decision this week. A 5-4 majority of the justices said the Republican-controlled state House of Delegates didn’t have the right to pursue an appeal in a long-running, racial gerrymandering case. That means new court-ordered, state House districts will stand for November’s legislative contests. All 140 seats in the General Assembly will be up for election.

The GOP now holds razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate. Some of the newly drawn seats tilt more favorably to Democrats.

Think about it: Some voters went to the polls several times this decade in districts that were later deemed unconstitutional. The courts had to provide what the General Assembly couldn’t: districts that didn’t cram too many African-Americans inside, effectively diluting their voting power in adjacent areas. 

Republicans spent at least $4.5 million in taxpayer money to fight battles they ultimately lost.

That money is yours and mine, folks. Or was.

(In a related note, federal judges earlier this decade ordered changes to the boundaries of several congressional districts. They said legislators had packed too many blacks into the 3rd District, long represented by Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat. The court-ordered moves also made the nearby 4th District more favorable to Democratic Party candidates.)

If all of that doesn’t convince voters and legislators in Virginia to adopt a bipartisan redistricting commission to draw the lines following the 2020 census, then nothing will. More on that below.

I understand the pique of Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox. In 2011, his party controlled the House, and Dems ruled the Senate. The parties in charge drew the lines for their respective chambers in a compromise, without meddling from the other chamber.

The Legislative Black Caucus approved the House map. The U.S. Justice Department under President Barack Obama gave its blessing, too. So Cox and other Republicans figured they were fine.

Courts, though, later said race had played too much a role in drawing the lines. The case, Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, has bounced around for years – and it’s the second time the high court has ruled on aspects of it.

Ultimately, a majority of the justices this week agreed with Attorney General Mark Herring, who said his office, not the state House, has the responsibility for representing Virginia in court. Herring decided to not appeal a ruling that 11 House districts in the state were racially gerrymandered.

That’s why I support the push to create a new commission that will draw district lines in Virginia. It won’t be totally free of politics – such a vehicle might not exist.

But at least some of the members won’t have the huge self-interest displayed by legislators. They, after all, are more concerned with incumbent protection than the will of the electorate.

The Assembly earlier this year passed a bill creating an eight-citizen, eight-lawmaker redistricting panel. The proposed constitutional amendment has to pass the Assembly again in 2020, and then voters have to approve it in November 2020 for the commission to start.

(By the way, Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center polled Virginians about the issue in 2018, and changing the current system had huge support. Some 65 percent backed the creation of an independent advisory commission to propose redistricting plans, and 61 supported amending Virginia’s Constitution to place a nonpartisan commission in charge of redistricting.)

Mind you, I doubt such a panel would’ve gotten this far unless both chambers were nearly evenly split. The temptation was too great previously for a party with a large majority to scoff at the party out of power when mapmaking time arrived. Ruling lawmakers don’t capitulate that easily.

Brian Cannon is executive director of OneVirginia2021, a nonpartisan organization that’s spent the past few years advocating a change in how the lines are drawn to make them fairer, and to have voters choose their lawmakers – not the other way around.

Gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating district lines for maximum partisan gains, has been with us since the founding of the Republic, Cannon told me this week. “But it’s been put on steroids with the digital revolution” and the use of social media, computers and other data.

He says the Assembly proposal isn’t truly independent, but it’s better than our current process. “People have a real strong sense the system is rigged,” Cannon noted.

That has to be a better way than how Virginia creates districts now.

Maybe we’ll stay out of court and save millions. Maybe we’ll have fairer, compact, more sensible districts.

And maybe the parties won’t still be fighting over them when the next census arrives.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]