Legislative Redistricting Bill Squelched in House

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008; B05

RICHMOND, Feb. 15 -- Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates defeated a measure Friday that would have changed the way legislative and congressional boundaries are drawn, despite passionate calls by business and voter groups to fix what they said was a non-democratic system.

The legislation would have created a bipartisan panel to revise district boundaries, which is done every 10 years after the U.S. census to reflect changes in the population. Currently, state House and Senate districts are drawn by the leadership of the party in control of each chamber. The next redistricting will take place in 2011.

Supporters of the bill accused Republicans in a House elections subcommittee of undermining the democratic process by preventing the bill from reaching the floor, where all 100 delegates could have voted on it. At a 7 a.m. meeting, the bill was tabled indefinitely by a vote of 3 to 2, with all the panel's Republicans voting against sending it on to the full committee.

"I'm very disappointed," said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who introduced the bill. "Three votes. To me this is an issue that ought to be heard on the floor."

Supporters sought unsuccessfully to revive the bill a couple of hours later in the full Privileges and Elections Committee.

Under the current system, party leaders in the General Assembly are in charge of setting district boundaries, and often do so in a way that gives them a political advantage. The legislation would have created a commission of three Republicans, three Democrats and a chairman selected by the group. The panel's redistricting map would then have gone to the full General Assembly for approval.

The legislation's supporters -- including the League of Women Voters, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and several prominent Republicans and Democrats -- said it would have helped create fair and logical districts and resulted in more competitive elections.

According to the Virginia Redistricting Coalition, a group of business leaders and politicians that advocated for the bill, only 17 of the legislature's 140 districts had competitive elections last year because the district lines had been drawn to favor one candidate or party.

This year, they said, offered the perfect opportunity for reform because the Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans control the House. Earlier in the month, the bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate with the support of Democrats and most Republicans.

The current system "suppresses the exchange of ideas," said Olga Hernandez, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia. "When you have competition, you have to discuss the issues, and that is better for the citizenry of Virginia."

Opponents, however, said the legislation would not depoliticize the process and would instead drive it into back rooms, where the party leaders have their say anyway. Moreover, they noted, Republican control of the process in 2001 did not prevent Democrats from making major gains in last year's elections.

Subcommittee Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) said the supporters were overstating the bill's importance.

"To say that we don't work together because of partisan redistricting, I think, is not really true," he said during the subcommittee's deliberations.

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