The Unfairness Platform

Sunday, February 22, 2009

IN KILLING a bill to establish a bipartisan commission to draw Virginia's voting districts, Republicans in the House of Delegates showed their hand. They're betting that this fall's state elections see Republicans retaining control of the House and perhaps regaining the governor's office, allowing them to call the shots for 2011 redistricting. It's a gamble that cares not a whit for the integrity of the political process; the only interests being tended are those of politicians who want to stay in office.

By a 4-2 vote along party lines Tuesday, a subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee defeated a measure aimed at reforming the decennial process of reshaping districts to account for population changes. Instead of the current system in which the party controlling the General Assembly retreats to back rooms to carve up the state in a way that favors its partisan interests, a bipartisan commission would create redistricting plans using criteria that exclude political considerations. Final approval would remain with the legislature.

Political momentum had been building for the measure. It was backed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), enjoyed broad public support and, significantly, won unanimous approval of the Senate. The advantages are clear: Not only would the process be more transparent, but -- witness the experience of other states that employ nonpartisan methods -- it would mean districts that better represent voters and ensure more competitive elections. It's nothing short of a scandal that in 2007 only 17 of the 140 seats in the General Assembly had any real competition.

There is one week left in the session, but even the staunchest supporters of reform concede there is no virtually no chance for passage. Republican Dels. John A. Cosgrove (Chesapeake), Jeffrey M. Frederick (Prince William), S. Chris Jones (Suffolk) and R. Steven Landes (Augusta) saw to that. Another chance will come next year, before the 2010 census necessitates the drawing of new districts, but frankly the parties in power will have much less incentive to do the right thing. It's encouraging, though, that redistricting is emerging as an issue in the governor's race. Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) and former Alexandria delegate Brian Moran (D) have each sponsored bills to reform the process, with Mr. Deeds the author of this year's effort. Both have promised to use their powers as governor to promote bipartisan redistricting. A spokeswoman for the third Democratic hopeful, Terry McAuliffe, told us that he also would back such an effort. A spokesman for Robert F. McDonnell, who resigned as attorney general this month to run on the Republican ticket for governor, offered vague promises that he will ensure a fair and competent redistricting process but -- disappointingly -- made no mention of a bipartisan commission.

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