GOP Delegates Reject Giving Redistricting Job to Impartial Panels

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2007

RICHMOND, Jan. 19 -- A series of measures aimed at removing politics from the often partisan process of drawing legislative and congressional district boundaries met with swift defeat Friday in a Republican-controlled committee of the House of Delegates.

Along party lines, Republicans, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, defeated several measures calling for independent redistricting commissions to draw boundaries. Although similar legislation emerged from a Senate committee this week and appears likely to win passage on the Senate floor, it, too, is likely to fail in the House of Delegates.

At issue is an intensely political process that all agree is one of the most significant prerogatives of the party that controls the assembly. Every 10 years, after new census data are released, the legislature redraws the boundaries of its own 140 districts as well as those of Virginia's 11 congressional seats to reflect shifting population trends.

Winning elections is another big goal. Those in power readily target incumbents from the other party by drawing them out of their districts or by changing boundaries in such a way as to reverse the partisan makeup of a district.

"It reduces competition, it polarizes us and it diminishes voter participation," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment to take redistricting authority away from lawmakers and give it to an independent commission. "In 2005, only 11 House seats were competitive -- within a 10 percent of margin of victory."

Moran told the House Privileges and Elections Committee on Friday that his proposal is identical to a measure supported 15 years ago by Republicans -- including current House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) -- who were then out of power. But that argument was not persuasive for Republicans, who promptly defeated Moran's bill, saying it is too easy for Democrats to seek nonpartisan redistricting at a time when they don't control the process.

"It may be hypocritical for us, but it's also hypocritical of the Democrats to bring up all these bills when they didn't do it for 100 years," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). "This doesn't solve the problem. No one has shown me that you're removing the politics from the process. All you're doing is transferring the politics to another body."

The political nature of the process is undeniable. In 2001, Republicans' redistricting left two Democratic delegates -- R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) and James M. Shuler (D-Blacksburg) -- in the same district. Deeds, now a senator, represents a district that Republicans made overwhelmingly Democratic in 2001 -- in order to strengthen the Republican districts around it.

Moran said the same story can be told of Virginia's 11 congressional seats, which Republicans redrew in 2001 to favor their candidates. Eight of those seats are now occupied by Republicans at a time when voters have chosen a Democratic governor and a U.S. senator in statewide contests.

"Obviously, Virginia is not an 8 to 3 Republican state," Moran said.

Added Deeds: "You shouldn't consider where the incumbents live. The only demographic that should be considered is population."

Deeds said it is "freakin' revolutionary" that his redistricting bill appears headed toward approval in the Senate. Although he said its chances in the House are slim, Deeds said the "baby step" of Senate passage is further evidence that redistricting reform will become reality some day.

Deeds and Moran said they will promote their legislation even if Democrats resume control of the General Assembly.

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