The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia’s new redistricting panel was supposed to make democracy work better — but partisanship stands in the way

Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), a member of Virginia's new redistricting commission, on Aug. 2 in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

When Virginians voted nearly 2-to-1 last fall to establish a bipartisan redistricting commission, the idea was to embrace a fairer method of drafting the state’s political maps. There was certainly reason to hope for an end to the brazen incumbent-protection racket that had prevailed for decades, enabling sitting lawmakers, helped by ever-more-deft technological gizmos, to choose their own voters. But even before the commission has drawn a single state legislative or congressional district, it is engulfed in tribal partisan skirmishing, precisely the opposite of the compromise and consensus it was designed to encourage.

First, the 16-member panel — split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, citizens and state legislators — was unable to agree on hiring a single, nonpartisan lawyer to guide its work, settling instead for one affiliated with each party. Then, at a similar impasse over hiring a firm to draft boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts, it opted for two firms, each partisan. So much for consensus.

Some members still express optimism that compromise will win out in the end. But the dysfunction so far suggests a stalemate is likely this fall, when the deadline arrives for the commission to produce agreed-upon maps.

“They are going to bomb us for this,” said Brandon Hutchins, a citizen commissioner from Virginia Beach, evidently worried about a public backlash and not imagining his words would be caught on a hot mic in a meeting this week. Not to worry, state Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) reassured him, adding that only a “fairly small segment” of the electorate is paying attention.

That bit of cynicism nicely encapsulates the commission’s work to date, which, if it continues down the split-lane highway of polarization, will end without producing agreed-upon maps to present to the General Assembly for up-or-down votes. If that happens, it will mark a failure, the latest bit of evidence that democracy is fraying throughout, and that elected officials are ill-equipped to fix it.

The commission’s rules allow any two of its legislator members of either party to block a proposed map, a structure intended to promote compromise. If instead the outcome is an impasse, the enterprise will be turned over to Virginia’s Supreme Court, which will hire its own experts to do the job. That could lend Republicans a partisan advantage; a majority of the court’s judges were appointed by past GOP-led legislatures, although some have shown an independent streak.

Democratic opponents of the commission warned of that scenario. Yet even with its evident problems, the new system, which is mostly transparent, is unlikely to produce maps as skewed as the old one, in which voting districts were drawn in secret by majority-party lawmakers. That produced maps, crafted by Republicans after the 2010 Census, that diluted minority voting clout so blatantly that they were struck down, twice, by the U.S. Supreme Court. If this year’s effort ultimately falls to Virginia’s Supreme Court, it is unlikely to subject its own prestige to a similar humiliation.

“I don’t think we did a referendum to do the same thing we’ve done in the past,” said Greta J. Harris, a citizen commissioner from Richmond. That’s exactly right: The panel was given a mission by Virginia voters to strengthen and improve democracy. It is a charge the commissioners should start taking more seriously.