Virginia case highlights need to stop gerrymandering by GOP, Democrats alike

Robert McCartney
Columnist January 26, 2013

Both Republicans and Democrats regularly exhibit such greed and dishonesty in manipulating electoral maps that a Columbia University expert who studies the practice likened his work to that of an anthropologist who observes cannibals.

“I have to replace normal human reactions of disgust and revulsion with fascination and curiosity. It’s the only way I can cope,” said Nathaniel Persily, a law professor who’s helped draw election lines in Maryland and other states.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Virginia Republicans are the latest offenders in the sorry saga of politicians seeking to contort the voting process to help their party, and they are going for it in a big way.

First, they shoved a bill through the state Senate that would significantly gerrymander voting jurisdictions for that chamber’s members to benefit the GOP. They did so without hearings in a year when the state constitution suggests they have no business making such changes.

Some Republican legislators have also pushed a separate measure in Richmond to rejigger how the state’s presidential tally is counted. Under their bill, President Obama would have received only four of Virginia’s 13 electoral votes last year, even though he beat Mitt Romney by nearly 150,000 in the popular count.

The GOP scored 33 more seats in the House this election even though Democrats earned a million more votes in House races. Professor Jeremy Mayer says gerrymandering distorts democracy. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

The GOP efforts in Richmond should appall anyone who cares about democracy and fairness. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has done the right thing by saying he opposes the Electoral College chicanery, which now seems unlikely to pass. The governor should make clear he’d veto the Senate plan, as well, if it reaches his desk.

Still, let’s be objective. The Democrats do it, too. The GOP has done it more in the current census cycle nationwide, because it controls more state governments. But both parties are guilty.

For instance, Maryland Democrats last year fashioned one of the nation’s most grotesque U.S. congressional district maps to squeeze a Republican out of office in the 6th District in the state’s western half.

In addition, when Democrats controlled the Virginia Senate before the 2011 legislative elections, they designed the districts to help themselves. The current GOP bid to redraw those lines arises partly from simple retaliation.

“It’s just a raw and uncensored act of Republican revenge, because Republicans were furious at what Democrats did following the 2010 census,” said Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor. McDonnell appointed him to chair a bipartisan redistricting commission whose maps were ignored.

The new GOP bill on the Senate is especially offensive and worrisome because of its timing. The parties are supposed to make major changes in the map only once each decade, a principle enshrined in the state constitution.

The Republicans maintain that it’s okay because they’re just fixing lines that the Democrats drew inappropriately. But that’s a transparent dodge.

The GOP risks setting a precedent that would lead to constant redistricting battles not only in Virginia but also elsewhere around the country. That would aggravate partisan hostilities and distract legislators from dealing with schools, roads and other issues that affect voters more directly.

“It’s very, very rare to have a mid-decade partisan gerrymander,” Persily said. “The question is are we entering an age of perpetual gerrymandering. This won’t stop in Virginia if it becomes the norm.”

The controversy should prompt the public and responsible politicians on both sides to demand adoption of a nonpartisan process for drawing election maps. California and some other states have given the job to bipartisan commissions, with generally positive results.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen right now, because the GOP currently has an interest nationally in protecting existing gerrymanders.

That’s because the Republicans won control of so many state governments in the anti-Obama backlash in the midterm elections in 2010. That allowed them to draw more maps in their favor than the Democrats were able to do following the decennial census.

As a result, in the 2012 U.S. congressional elections, the GOP won a 33-seat majority in the House even though Democrats won 50.4 percent of the popular vote in all House races combined, according to an analysis by Sam Wang, a founder of the Princeton Election Consortium.

“We can certainly point to more instances of Republican gerrymanders in this cycle, because they control more states,” said Dan Tokaji, a law professor and election law specialist at Ohio State University. “The reality is both sides try to draw the map that gives them maximum advantage when they have the power to do so.”

Most other major industrialized democracies don’t have this problem. They have independent, trusted civil servants to do the job. America should copy their example or appoint bipartisan commissions and remove this stain on civic integrity.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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