ELECTED OFFICIALS in Virginia have proved so hopeless at drawing a state electoral map that passes constitutional muster, the task was outsourced to a professor in — wait for it — California. That should be the final straw for partisan dysfunction in Richmond, which produced legislative districts so gerrymandered when they were drafted in 2011 that they remain the subject of litigation in 2019.
The commonwealth’s extravagant failure to produce fair maps is so obvious — the Supreme Court will soon hear arguments for the third time concerning the 2011 map — that state lawmakers may at last be forced to enact the only solution that makes sense: a constitutional amendment establishing an independent redistricting commission.
Legislation to get the ball rolling on the constitutional amendment — a process that takes at least two years in Virginia — is pending before lawmakers in Richmond. Democrats support it. Republicans, who until now have fought relentlessly to challenge and delay changes to the 2011 House of Delegates map, which they drew, are dragging their feet.
No wonder. The GOP’s legislative cartographers engineered electoral districts in the House of Delegates to their own advantage in 2011 — much as Democrats have done when they have been in the majority. In the Republicans’ case, a federal court found their electoral map packed African Americans tightly into 11 districts, mostly in Hampton Roads and Richmond, thereby diminishing their clout in adjacent, GOP-held districts. Despite that, the party’s 2-to-1 advantage in the 100-seat House was cut in the 2017 elections to the narrowest possible margin: 51 to 49.
Now, facing elections this fall in every House district, plus all 40 districts in the state Senate, Republicans are loath to rejigger the map as momentum builds in Democrats’ favor.
Hence the foot-dragging. GOP lawmakers, led by House Speaker Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), refused to act on a Democratic proposal for redrawing districts. Instead, he sought a delay in carrying out the federal court ruling that the 2011 map was unconstitutional. The federal court refused; Mr. Cox then appealed to the Supreme Court, which, though it accepted the case, also declined to delay a redrawing of the map by a law professor in California.
The professor, appointed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, is Bernard Grofman of the University of California at Irvine. In a 131-page report, he offered three dozen possible electoral map configurations from which the court can choose. All of them are more compact and contiguous than the status quo map and designed to be blind to partisan outcomes — much as required by Virginia’s 1971 constitution, which has been routinely ignored by both parties.
Now, respected former lawmakers and legal experts — including A.E. Dick Howard, the University of Virginia law professor who drafted the constitution — are pressing for an independent commission to handle redistricting. Legislation to achieve that is pending, backed by Gov. Ralph Northam and his Democratic colleagues in the General Assembly. It’s time for Republicans to get on board.