Redistricting stalemate may have been inevitable. It doesn’t mean the effort was useless.

October 13, 2021 12:02 am

Draft maps are presented at a meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gridlock and intransigence were predictable when Virginia’s first-ever redistricting commission met to draw new maps for legislative and congressional seats. It was probably inevitable, given the rampant partisanship that pervades politics everywhere in the country – including in the commonwealth.

That doesn’t mean the new exercise was “staring at failure,” as one harsh headline blared over the weekend, after the 16 commissioners couldn’t agree on proposed maps for the General Assembly. They’re still looking at possible congressional maps. 

Eight panel members are Virginia citizens, and eight are state legislators. The 16 are equally split between Democrats and Republicans. 

Some Democratic panelists walked out Friday, frustrated that even selecting which prospective maps to debate couldn’t bring a consensus. 

And as my colleague Graham Moomaw reported: “Partisanship dominated the process from the start, with the commission hiring two teams of overtly partisan consultants and repeatedly failing to agree on how to merge two sets of maps.” That’s not a recipe for success. 

Virginians voted overwhelmingly last year for a constitutional amendment that switched the process of redistricting from only legislators – who historically, after the decennial census, chose their own voters and protected incumbents – and vested it in the bipartisan panel. 

The fact these 16 people couldn’t overcome procedural and other issues is more a statement on our frayed democracy than it is on whether such a panel is the best way to draw boundaries. 

This process, though, is better than what came before. The party with the legislative majority can’t steamroll the minority party and concoct maps that raise questions of legality, compactness and racial equity. Backroom deals are harder to pull off. 

This system is also much more transparent, with commissioners doing their work in the open. 

Before, a few legislators in the majority – often using precise computer mapping – drew lines and presented districts nearly guaranteeing their continued dominance. (So what if too many Black Virginians were packed into a congressional district, for example? It ensured they wouldn’t mess up an incumbent’s chance in a nearby one, craven legislators reckoned.)

Every Virginian this year got to view the blatant, ham-fisted attempt by panelist Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, in drawing an alternate map that wouldn’t have placed him in the same district with another Democratic senator. His stunned colleagues scoffed at Barker’s machinations.

Talk about self-interested incumbent protection. 

Some panelists also agonized – as they should have – over the way Black voters would be treated. Virginia has a history of denying African-Americans the right to vote and preventing them from electing candidates of their own choice. It was no idle concern.

Though they faced figurative straitjackets in reaching a compromise, members from both parties deserved scrutiny. However, independent experts from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the latest Democratic draft maps better fairness ratings than the GOP drafts. 

Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, lambasted the lack of agreement among the panelists and questioned their professionalism. “We deserve better from the commission than what we received so far,” he told me Monday. 

Yet Farnsworth also acknowledged partisanship is a big factor, as are an absence of moderates to help steer decision-makers through difficult issues. “Today, we see the trench warfare of Washington transferred to Richmond,” he added. 

My sentiments are more closely aligned with those of Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, which is affiliated with the New York University School of Law. He said part of the challenge with redistricting panels is getting people to work across party lines. That notion has fallen out of favor in many places across the country.

“Bipartisanship is hard to come by,” he conceded during a phone interview. “We are living through a very politically polarized era. We may be just seeing those realities playing out in redistricting.”

Yet Rudensky added that Virginia’s efforts to work out the process in public, with citizens as part of the mapmaking, has been an asset. “Reasonable minds can (debate) whether this is a reasonable outcome or an unfortunate one,” he said. 

There’s an outside chance the commission could submit plans for the state legislative maps within two weeks of the initial Oct. 10 deadline. Farnsworth said he’d give final marks when the process is over. 

The likelihood is the state Supreme Court will take over the process, at least on the state legislative side, and select outside experts who would present proposals to the justices for approval. 

Can the mechanics be improved in 2031? The Democratic co-chair this year, Greta Harris, said state legislators shouldn’t be on the panel. Rudensky suggested the birthing pains this year could be used “to tweak the process going forward.”

Exactly. We’ve seen some of the downsides of the process, but that’s no reason to abandon it. The panel is better than the way incumbent state legislators gerrymandered districts in the past.

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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]