Virginians voted overwhelmingly last year in favor of a new system of drawing electoral maps. They clearly hoped for an improvement on the partisan power plays that for decades had granted exclusive control to the party holding power when redistricting rolled around once a decade — a rigged system in which incumbent protection trumped all.
For the past few months, that hope seemed misplaced. Now it has been revived by the Virginia Supreme Court and the two men it hired to draft new district voting maps. Those proposed maps, published Wednesday, represent exactly the sort of good-faith effort that may vindicate the trust Virginia voters invested in the new process.
A majority of the court’s seven justices were chosen by the legislature in Richmond when it was under Republican control. That convinced some Democrats that it would produce voting maps tilted in the GOP’s favor. So far, those fears appear unjustified.
No electoral map can claim perfection, and this one is no exception. One flaw is that there are fewer minority-majority districts than under the current map. Another: Each of the three women, all Democrats, in the 11-member congressional delegation would have a less secure hold on her seat under the new district configuration. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Democrat, would be stranded almost 50 miles outside the redrawn boundaries of the district she represents, now centered in the suburbs west of Richmond. In addition, some are displeased that various communities and counties have been split by the new congressional voting lines, including Tysons, in Northern Virginia, and Albemarle County, around Charlottesville.
Those are fair points of debate. The big picture is this: The special “masters,” under explicit instructions from the state’s highest court to “be neutral,” produce a single set of maps and shed any notion that they represent either party, have done exactly that. Their map leaves both parties, more or less equally, with reason for hope and cause for grumbles.
That’s a major improvement on the status quo of just a few weeks ago, when Virginia’s new bipartisan redistricting commission, established by last year’s voter-approved constitutional amendment, experienced a partisan meltdown, which shifted the map-drawing to the court.
Ultimately the court selected two map-drafters, Sean Trende, a GOP nominee, and Bernard Grofman, a Democratic pick, who said their “true joint effort” included resolving points of disagreement “by amicable discussion.” That novel approach yielded a congressional map that might be somewhat less competitive than the status quo: It would leave just one real toss-up district, in place of the current three, while creating an additional district that leans Republican and another that leans Democratic. But the delegation’s current 7-to-4 Democratic edge would be neither obviously threatened nor protected.
The court is now accepting written comments from the public and will hold two online public hearings on the maps, on Dec. 15 and 17. Cartographical warts and all, the proposed congressional map so far looks more balanced, and informed by a far more transparent process, than any other in recent memory.
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