IF THERE WERE any doubt about the make-believe character of Virginia’s elaborately named Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting, it was put to rest a few weeks ago at the commission’s very first public hearing. There, in an august committee room of the state capitol, the commission was presented with one possible redrawn map of the state’s congressional districts, based on new population data from the 2010 Census. The map happened to remove Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader, whose home is in Richmond, from his own 7th District, which he has represented for a decade.
A titter spread among the reporters and other spectators watching the proceedings. Everyone realized that in the real world of Virginia politics — where political maps are drawn first and foremost to protect incumbents and minimize the chances of genuine two-party electoral competition — this could never happen.
Through no fault of its own, the commission, created by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) in fulfillment of what turns out to be an empty campaign promise, is engaged in little more than a charade. In recent days, as the commission finalized an array of serious and thoughtful maps, lawmakers have made it clear that they couldn’t care less what it recommends; they’ve agreed on their own maps, which will govern elections this fall for the House of Delegates and state Senate. Even the governor has distanced himself from his own commission; his spokesman said the commission’s recommendations “are theirs alone.”
The incumbents’ contempt for the redistricting efforts of outsiders extends beyond the commission’s work. For the past few months, 15 teams of students and faculty from a dozen Virginia universities produced 55 electoral plans, a competition then winnowed to a handful of winners. The idea was to present food for political thought — electoral map-making that made sense to voters, not just officeholders. But their work, too, has been ignored by politicians working in the modern equivalent of smoke-filled backrooms.
Mr. McDonnell, a longtime opponent of efforts to rationalize redistricting, seemed to undergo an intellectual conversion when he announced during the campaign that he’d changed his mind. That gave rise to hopes that Virginia might adopt a system similar to those in some other states that drew compact districts that maintained contiguity, communities of interest, and real competition between Democrats and Republicans.
That would be a major change from the status quo, which makes a joke of the two-party system by stacking electoral districts in favor of one or the other party. In 2009, nearly 90 percent of the races for the House of Delegates — when there even was a two-party race — were blowouts.
In the event, though, Mr. McDonnell created an 11-member commission — chaired by an esteemed political scientist and composed of respected citizens — that is utterly toothless: an advisory body lacking staff, budget and resources whose recommendations are binding on no one. Even as the commission’s work was underway, Politico reported that Virginia’s 11 incumbent members of Congress had agreed on a map, the main intent of which is to safeguard all of them — eight Republicans and three Democrats — in their current jobs.
At this point, the best that can be hoped is that the commission’s work, and that of the student map-makers, will stand as models of what might be possible if the state ever musters the nerve to shed its hidebound ways and embrace a system in which voters pick candidates, rather than the other way around.