Peter Galuszka is a freelance writer in Chesterfield, Va.
For the second time in four years, federal judges have struck down how the Virginia General Assembly has drawn boundaries of electoral districts to pack in minorities and make it easier for white candidates in adjacent districts to win elections.
Such serial gerrymandering displays cynicism and racism. Both political parties have been guilty of this scheming. What’s needed is to take the line-drawing job from the legislature and give it to a new independent commission.
In June, a federal judicial panel found that 11 districts for the House of Delegates were gerrymandered in such a way and ordered a redrawing by Oct. 30.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called a special session of the General Assembly Aug. 30 to do just that. But fruitless squabbling along party lines basically kicked the can down the road, making it likely that redistricting will be handed over to the court, which will bring in a special master to do the job.
It is a repeat of what happened in 2014 when another federal judicial panel found that the lines-drawing for Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District schemed to pack in African American voters to dilute their influence and make it easier for white candidates to win adjacent districts.
Just as it is doing now, the General Assembly sent the redrawing task back to the courts, which brought a special master to handle it. The results were redrawn 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 7th Congressional Districts.
How many more times this could happen is an open question.
“Where to begin? I think the fact that we are in 2018 approaching another round of line drawing demonstrates how dysfunctional the current process is,” says Rebecca Green, a College of William & Mary law professor. She is a member of a 10-person study group set up by OneVirgina2021, a bipartisan effort to fight gerrymandering.
For years, creating an independent commission to handle line-drawing was a legislative anathema. For it to happen, the General Assembly would have to approve a bill twice, which it was loath to do. Then, the proposal would have to be approved by voters in a constitutional referendum.
Legislators have stubbornly resisted any loss of control and have drawn lines according to their racial and partisan plans. The General Assembly decides new lines the year after a federal census is taken and results are known. The next redistricting is slated for 2021, giving reformers a target to push ahead with their plans.
On Aug. 30 during the special session, legislators brilliantly displayed how inept they are at handling court-ordered redistricting. The Republican-controlled General Assembly shot down a Democratic effort to make some seats more competitive. Northam, who has backed a special independent commission on redistricting, has thrown in the towel. He asked Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), the Republican speaker of the house, to let the courts decide the issue. On Sept. 12, Republicans informed the federal court that they were working on an “advanced” redrawing and would have something by Sept. 27.
Part of the Republicans’ strategy is to stall any reform steps so the U.S. Supreme Court can hear an appeal of the federal judicial panel’s redistricting requirement. “It’s a last-ditch effort,” says Bob Holsworth, a political analyst in Richmond, adding that the GOP legislators hope the high court will stay the decision. At stake could be five or six seats now held by Republicans, he says.
Green says that the time is ripe for an independent commission to redraw lines. Virginia voters are increasingly frustrated with how the current electoral map protects politicians from competition. This results in primaries being the forum where issues are debated and incumbents are locked in. When primaries dominate and there is no opposition during the election, candidates come out with more strident, more partisan platforms.
Voters, especially ones new to Virginia, are less willing to accept the status quo. Green points out that OneVirginia2021 initially had only 3,500 supporters but now has 86,000 active members. She says that when she spoke in Northern Virginia at a League of Women Voters forum in February, even though it was “a freezing cold, rainy Sunday,” more than 400 people showed up.
Virginia is hardly alone with redistricting woes. A number of states have set up independent commissions. North Carolina faces a much worse situation. Federal judges have struck down the state’s entire congressional map just two months before an election.
Virginia’s next state elections are in November 2019. Green says there’s plenty of time for the courts to redraw the electoral map before then as efforts for an independent commission move forward.
“We don’t want for it to be 2028 and we’re still in the same position,” she notes.