The 1812 political cartoon that helped popularize the "Gerry-mander," named for Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Has Virginia’s new Democratic legislative majority painted itself into a corner on redistricting? Can Democrats resist the temptation to derail a long-sought nonpartisan reapportionment commission already well on the road to becoming real? 

Back when they were the minority party (just two weeks ago), Democrats criticized majority Republicans for muscling brazenly partisan redistricting bills through the legislature that gave the GOP significant numerical advantages in the new congressional and state district boundaries. Republicans had similarly cried foul for the whole 20th century until they secured their first unchallenged legislative majority in 1999.

Why not turn the whole process over to a politically disinterested entity focused on tight, compact districts that kept together communities of interest rather than contort them into serpentine configurations to achieve a partisan goal? The idea always had some legislative support, particularly the party out of power at the time. The reasoning went like this: Shouldn’t voters pick their elected representatives rather than the other way around? Why not turn this over to an independent and fair arbiter that could craft new legislative and congressional districts, free of gerrymandering? 

Be careful what you wish for. 

Democrats had been pushing for nonpartisan redistricting for some time. Republicans warmed to it over the past decade as they saw demographic shifts toward the suburbs augur toward the Democrats’ advantage. During last winter’s legislative session, the House and Senate overwhelmingly gave the required first of two approvals to a proposed state constitutional amendment to establish just such a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

Dick Saslaw knows better than most after serving nearly 40 years in the Senate and four years before that in the House of Delegates what it’s like to win reapportionment battles in Virginia as the majority party and to lose them as the minority party. A Democrat, he will become the Senate’s most powerful member as the majority leader in January. Saslaw is adamant that redistricting reform will proceed undeterred. 

“I can’t see any reason it wouldn’t pass — easily … easily! — this year,” he said. “(It) passed the Senate 40-0 last winter. Whose interest is it in not to pass it? We (Democrats) want it. It’s certainly in the Republicans’ interest to pass it.”

Now outright holders of power in Virginia’s executive and legislative branches of government for the first time since 1993 thanks to the blue sweep in this month’s elections, some Democrats may privately have buyers’ remorse over redistricting reform, said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington.

(And not so privately: Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, plans to debate a redistricting reform advocate next month on the “pros and cons of the constitutional amendment and whether or not appointees of the former illegally-gerrymandered Republican-majority legislature should draw the lines in Virginia for the next decade and possibly decades more.”)

Should they act on such an impulse, Farnsworth said, they’d face the wrath of good-government advocates and editorialists who’ve spent decades trying to eliminate naked partisanship in redistricting. 

“It reminds me of the prayer that St. Augustine prayed as a youth: ‘Lord, give me chastity, but not yet,’” Farnsworth said. “So maybe it’s ‘Lord, give me nonpartisan redistricting reform, but just not yet.’”

One tactic that would keep redistricting reform alive but delay it beyond the 2021 reapportionment would be to insert a change into the resolution before the House and Senate for consideration in the 2020 session. That would require a subsequent passage of the altered resolution in 2022 (after the 2021 legislative election), and voter ratification that fall, meaning the first new lines drawn by an independent body would be in 2031. 

While polling shows that redistricting reform is not a front-burner issue now for most voters, scuttling or even delaying the process might put it there, Farnsworth said.

“It would look awfully hypocritical if they don’t put it before the voters given the massive support there was for it last year,” he said. 

Interest in redistricting reform varies. There are places where voters have suffered egregious gerrymandering that chopped up their communities. In the 2001 reapportionment, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott’s 3rd district wrapped around part of Norfolk and Portsmouth, snaked to the northwest in and out of precincts on the Peninsula, at one point being no wider than a bridge across a creek, then curled around Richmond’s east side. Today, Prince William County is carved up among three congressional districts: the 1st (Rep. Rob Wittman), the 10th (Rep. Jennifer Wexton) and the 11th (Rep. Gerry Connolly). 

Prince William is large enough to have its own undiluted voice in one representative, but its diverse troves of voters proved irresistible to legislators who drew the lines.

“Having politicians draw their own lines is a little like having students grade their own tests,” Farnsworth said.

Sometimes, they’re not just frustrating, they’re illegal. Earlier this year, a federal court that had struck down House of Delegates district boundaries from 2011 imposed its own boundaries for this fall’s elections, and it cost the GOP. One of the victims was 22-year Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, who chaired the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

While constituents are not yet storming the ramparts over nonpartisan reapportionment, they’ve seen enough of the old partisan spoils system. Now that reforms are already rolling down the track, they expect it to reach its destination.