New legislative maps keep faith with Virginia voters

December 16, 2021 12:14 am

Proposed boundaries for Virginia’s federal and state legislative districts have been released by the Virginia Supreme Court. Above are the proposed U.S. House of Representative districts. (Screengrab)

Voting advocates, civic activists and everyday Virginians should commend draft redistricting maps that so-called “special masters” drew at the behest of the state Supreme Court. 

What about current lawmakers who would have to campaign over new territory, or face off against fellow incumbents because of the new maps? Not so much. 

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, in particular, falls in an unenviable category. Her congressional district journeys roughly 50 miles from its current boundaries. I feel for the two-term Democrat from the Richmond suburbs, I really do. 

Just not at the expense of everybody else in the commonwealth. 

Sean Trende and Bernard Grofman, the map-drawers selected by Republicans and Democrats, respectively, said in a memo that “they took seriously the Court’s command that, although we were nominated by the political parties, we would behave in ‘an apolitical and nonpartisan manner.’ Our duty is owed not to the parties that nominated us, but rather to the Court that appointed us and to the residents of the Commonwealth that it serves.” 

I take the sniping – now coming from some partisan strongholds – as an indication Trende and Grofman did their jobs conscientiously. They elevated citizens and their communities over incumbency. 

The draft maps “look like the special masters used really sound methodology to get where they did,” Liz White, executive director of the group OneVirginia2021, told me. Her nonprofit organization had supported the state amendment to change the way redistricting is done in Virginia. 

“The districts, especially the Congressional ones, are compact, mostly competitive and represent fair partisan balance,” she added. 

Redistricting in the states takes place every 10 years, following the decennial census. The process in Virginia was ruled previously by whichever party controlled the General Assembly. That meant Democrats or Republicans took extreme measures to protect fellow party members first, incumbents second. Voters were considered only as they fulfilled the previously stated goals. 

If communities or localities were sliced up merely to satisfy the controlling party, so be it.

Good-government types demanded a better way, one not necessarily free of partisanship but also not controlled by self-interested legislators. Activists helped approve an amendment to the state Constitution that sent the process to a 16-member commission, equally split between sitting legislators and citizens. Eight are Republicans, and eight are Democrats. This was the first year the Redistricting Commission operated. 

Panel members locked horns frequently. Votes often deadlocked along partisan lines. The gamesmanship, however, was in full view of the public. Sen. George Barker’s naked self-interest, by drawing an altered map of an earlier draft – putting himself back in a district with no other incumbents – was particularly galling.

“Was the bipartisan commission perfectly functional? No,” Simone Leeper, legal counsel for redistricting at the D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, told me Wednesday. 

But she said the process was much more transparent than in previous rounds. And it was a lot fairer “than if it were controlled by partisan legislators.”

Plus, there was a mechanism to still get the job done if commissioners couldn’t agree: They’d hand off the elusive task to the Virginia Supreme Court. 

That’s where Trende and Grofman came in. Trende is a senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics. Grofman is a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine. As they crafted boundaries, where incumbents lived wasn’t part of the equation – and that’s how it should be. 

“We carefully drew districts that met constitutional and statutory population requirements,” Trende and Grofman wrote in their summary. “In doing so, we minimized county and city splits, while respecting natural boundaries and communities of interest (“COIs”) to the extent possible.”

As The Washington Post reported, the special masters said they had prioritized the compactness of districts “but acknowledged that their proposal had fewer minority-majority districts than current maps.”

Online public hearings on the maps were Wednesday and scheduled for Friday. 

The Washington Post, citing a analysis, said the legislative maps placed half of the state House’s 100 delegates into shared districts and 20 of the 40 state senators. Several legislators publicly supported the results, though, and said they seemed fair.

A different take came from some overtly partisan quarters. Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, tweeted that some Democrats “unilaterally” disarmed themselves. 

It was a replay, of sorts, of the struggle some Assembly Democrats – mostly in the House — waged after initially supporting the redistricting reform. After they gained control of both chambers in 2019, lo and behold, some didn’t want to cede map drawing at a time they’d wield the pens. 

That’s shortsighted. Democrats won’t always be in the majority – as will be the case in the state House starting in January. 

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) meets with health care providers while visiting the Free Clinic of Culpeper on Nov. 26, 2019. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Which brings me back to Spanberger. She must feel targeted by what the draft map does to her future political career. I’m guessing at this, because Spanberger’s spokesman declined to talk about her plans. When a Politico reporter reached her last week, the congresswoman wouldn’t discuss the map.

As a U.S. House member, she only has to live in the state she represents – not the district itself. Such a status, though, would invite complaints about whether she truly can speak for the area. 

The overall process is still an improvement from what existed before. The court eventually stepped in with drafts that appear equitable. 

That’s much cleaner and fairer, the Campaign Legal Center’s Leeper noted, “than backroom secret dealings (that draw) partisan gerrymanders.”

Sorry incumbents. The revised process keeps faith with all Virginians, not just the ones on the ballot.

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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]