July 13, 2016
Yesterday evening I attended a local meeting of the "OneVirginia 2021" movement (see Web site), which is dedicated to reforming the process by which redistricting is done here in the Old Dominion. I joined their Facebook page early this year, since it is an issue near and dear to my heart, and later made a modest contribution of money. The main speaker was Executive Director Brian Cannon, and he was joined by Angela Lynn, a Democrat who ran for the House of Delegates last fall, and a couple assistants. About 25 people attended, altogether.
Mr. Cannon began by outlining three central problems with the status quo of incumbent-protecting gerrymandering: 1) Both parties are guilty of it ("bad" bipartisanship); 2) Many of the resulting districts have a monstrous "Frankenstein" characteristic (encompassing multiple local communities, which are split up in the process); and 3) There are often woeful personal consequences, such as when the Democrats tried to redistrict State Sen. Bryce Reeves out of his district, but goofed by mixing up his house with that of a relative named Reeves. (For more on that case, which had largely escaped my notice last year, see bearingdrift.com.) It's a perfect example of how legislators use gerrymandering to reverse the principle of democratic accountability: Instead of voters choosing their representatives, the representatives choose their voters. Politicians make up some of the worst excuses you can imagine to justify this practice; basically, it comes down to "So what? Everybody does it."
If you ask the average American, they are not likely to grasp what gerrymandering is all about or why it matters. Indeed, as I tried to say during the meeting, that is the whole point. Gerrymandering is deliberately used by lawmakers not just to keep themselves in power, but also to foster a sense of cynical hopelessness about bringing about any real change. As but one illustration of how bad things have gotten, six State Senators told a judge that they were willing to rack up $51,000 in legal fines (at taxpayers' expense) for contempt of court after refusing to turn over documents related to their redistricting action. Mr. Cannon summarized the legal history of redistricting and gerrymandering, including the 1962 Supreme Court case Baker v. Carr, which required states to draw districts with approximately equal populations.
It is worth citing once again Article II, Section 6 of the Constitution of Virginia, which is routinely and blatantly ignored by our elected representatives in Richmond:
Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory* and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.
This controversy came before the court system last year, and this past January Federal judges issued a ruling which imposed new lines, affecting the First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Seventh Congressional Districts in Virginia. (See the Richmond Times-Dispatch.) I was aware of this forced redistricting, but did not realize just how extensive the changes were. Accordingly, I have updated the maps on the Virginia Politics page.
The Third Congressional District was originally intended as a "minority-majority district," a means to ensure that African-Americans get a fair chance at electing a member of their own race to Congress. (Indeed, Supreme Court rulings have required a number of states to do just that.) But "racial gerrymandering" got out of hand in some states, and Virginia is a perfect example. The Republicans in the House of Delegates "packed" so many blacks into the 3rd C.D. that the Democrats ended up with thousand of "surplus votes" that went to waste.
So what is to be done? Mr. Cannon laid out the best-case outcome of the reform movement, which is passing a state constitutional amendment to have special independent commissions handle the task or redistricting, and the second-best outcome, which would be to pass a statute with strict criteria by which legislators must draw the district lines. In my mind, the latter option would change very little. If there is one thing that I learned from my years of political involvement, the political establishment in Virginia is solid as a rock, almost impervious to the popular will. It's been that way ever since Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. ran Virginia almost as a despot. (He died in 1965, after more than three decades in the U.S. Senate, and his son Harry F. Byrd Jr. "inherited" the position.)
After the meeting, I called attention to my past involvement in this issue (predating "OneVirginia 2021"), such as when I spoke up at a public meeting with state legislators in Verona, in April 2011. In recent years, I have placed a heavy emphasis on this topic in my American Government classes at Central Virginia Community College. I talked with Mr. Cannon about various issues related to redistricting, such as the alternatives of a congressional election based on proportional representation, either statewide or in multi-member districts. The latter approach (MMD) reduces the number of districts that need to be drawn, making the process simpler and presumably more transparent, but it often works to the disadvantage of various minority factions that might not get any representatives. The bottom line is that no system is without flaws, and realism dictates that any reforms not stray too far from long-established practices. For better or worse, we are probably stuck with the single-member district system and the two-party system that it tends to foster. In political science, that is known as Duverger's Law.
I expect to become active with OneVirginia 2021 in the weeks and months to come. I should mention that I became familiar with their work through Facebook friend Bob Gibson, who runs the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. Like me, Bob is a big Washington Nationals fan.
This is the first political blog post I have made since early May. That may seem odd, given that it's an election year. On Facebook, I have made clear my utter refusal to consider voting for Donald Trump, regardless of who he picks as a vice presidential candidate. At this point I'm leaning toward voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico. More on all that soon...