Bill Targets Drafting Of Legislative Districts

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds wants to change the redistricting process.
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds wants to change the redistricting process. (Steve Helber - AP)
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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008

RICHMOND, Feb. 14 -- The Virginia House of Delegates will begin considering a bill Friday intended to remove politics from the way the state draws congressional and legislative boundaries.

Supporters of the plan say this year is their best chance to repair a process that for decades has been bogged down in backroom bargaining and partisan politics.

Lawmakers redraw district lines every 10 years after the U.S. census to account for shifts in population. The controlling party in the General Assembly is in charge of setting the new boundaries, and party leaders typically draw them to bolster their incumbents and help them win future elections.

Under a measure passed by the Virginia Senate and slated to go before a House subcommittee Friday, the task would fall to a panel appointed jointly by Democratic and Republican leaders. Their recommendations would then go to the General Assembly for approval.

"I'm convinced that the process by which districts are drawn is just broken," said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who introduced the bill. "If you have a process that's divorced somewhat from the state legislature, you have a less polarized process and one that has more competition and more choices."

If enacted, the legislation would affect the next redistricting, in 2011, when Northern Virginia is likely to see its influence in Richmond grow because of the region's rapid population growth.

But it still faces stiff opposition in the House, where a similar bill failed this year and where even the measure's strongest supporters say it faces significant hurdles. The problem, House Republican leaders say, is that there is no way to remove politics from the equation.

"The truth of the matter is, it is in fact a political process and it has been since the early days of the Republic," House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said. "To deny that is naive."

Other opponents have criticized the legislation as a feeble attempt at reform. Party insiders, they say, would still be involved in the redistricting process, and the results would need the approval of the General Assembly.

"I'd be more open to it if there's a way to do it to ensure that it's truly a nonpartisan process," said Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover), one of five Republicans who voted against the Senate bill. "But if we're just changing the nature of the partisanship, I don't see the point."

If the process remains unchanged, House Republican leaders and Senate Democratic leaders will draw their own legislative maps with the help of political consultants and computer databases full of voter information. A similar group would be formed by the congressional delegation, which prepares its own map and passes it on to the General Assembly for approval.

Attempts at redistricting reform have failed in recent years. But with Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans controlling the House, neither party is assured of a leading role in the next round of redistricting.

Moreover, the legislation has the support of a coalition of business owners, GOP supporters and several prominent politicians. Among its backers this year are Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) and George Allen (R), the former governor and U.S. senator.

Republicans controlled both chambers for eight years before the Democrats took back the Senate. This week, a group of 41 Republican voters, including several prominent Northern Virginia business leaders, sent a letter to House Speaker William J. Howell (Stafford) urging him to support the legislation.

The signers are all members of the Virginia Redistricting Coalition, a group of current and former politicians and business leaders that was founded in October to push for the legislation.

According to the group, 17 of the state's 140 legislative districts had competitive races in 2007. The lack of competition was attributed largely to lawmakers' efforts to protect incumbents. The group argues that more competitive districts would force legislators to be responsive to constituents.

Northern Virginia businesses have been frustrated by the lack of attention to roads and other infrastructure, which are seen as essential to the region's economic vitality, said Hugh Keogh, president and chief executive of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

"When districts are created that guarantee an outcome, there is more apathy and less engagement by the business community," said Keogh, whose organization's political action committee has endorsed the bill.

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