“Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory.”
That’s what Article II, Section 6 of the Virginia Constitution says, but if you look at the map, you’re much more likely to see tortuous, twisted, strung-out districts that have been gerrymandered to keep the current office holders in power.
Gerrymandering, the act of drawing electoral districts to benefit one party, has a long history in Virginia. Although we can thank (or blame) Republicans for the current state of things, Democrats certainly took advantage of the practice when they held power.
Every 10 years, the Virginia legislature redraws the district lines following completion of the U.S. Census for all 140 state legislators and the state’s 11 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ideally elections in all of these districts should be competitive where a candidate who best represents the district wins. But in most districts that’s not what happens.
In 2015, in the 100 races for the House of Delegates, 71 candidates (44 Republicans and 27 Democrats) ran unopposed. Even in districts with two candidates, one candidate often scored a lopsided win. In the Senate, 10 Republicans and 7 Democrats ran unopposed.
So how did we get into this mess? OneVirginia2021, a coalition of concerned citizens from all parts of the state, provides some background on its website: “Scholars point to Gov. Patrick Henry as the first example of political redistricting in the United States. In the 1780s he attempted to fix an election by creating a district to force Federalist James Madison to face Anti-Federalist James Monroe. The practice of gerrymandering has not changed much in the past 228 years…what has changed is the technology used to draw the lines more ruthlessly and effectively, and the large amounts of money behind this subtle practice.”
Some legislators have tried to solve the redistricting problem with little success. During the recently completed legislative session, all the bills for fair redistricting died without ever making it out of committee. At a recent town hall in Williamsburg State Sen. Monty Mason (D, District1) said he had introduced two nonpartisan redistricting bills, although he “knew both would die, but I wanted to make a point.”
With the issue stalemated in the legislature, attention has turned to the courts. In 2014, a federal court ruled that Virginia’s congressional map violated the Voting Rights Act. This case eventually resulted in a newly drawn map for Virginia’s congressional districts. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Bethune-Hill v. Virginia Board of Elections, a case that alleged 12 state legislative districts are based on an illegal racial gerrymander. On March 1, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Federal District Court in Virginia, ruling that the lower court had used the wrong criteria for upholding the state’s map.
A third case is also making its way through the courts, backed by OneVirginia2021. It identifies 11 districts, both Democratic and Republican, that violate the Constitutional requirements for contiguous and compact districts. The case was just given the go-ahead in the Richmond Circuit Court and the trial begins this week.
If you’re totally confused by all this political and judicial wrangling — and if all you want is to have a contested election whose outcome depends on what the voters want, not what the politicians want — come to the Newport News Main Street Library on Wednesday, March 15, at 7:30 p.m. Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021 will be explaining what is going on with redistricting and how we can help move the system in the right direction.
Redistricting is an issue that affects all parties and independents as well. Delegate Mike Mullin (D, District 93) called gerrymandering “a fundamental threat to our democracy.”
We can have competitive elections where voters chose the winner or elections where the entrenched incumbents are returned year after year. It’s up to us to make sure we have the choice.
The event is free and open to all, but please register here. Brian Cannon’s talk is sponsored by Peninsula Voices for Change, an organization formed in February 2017 to move Virginia toward a more progressive future.
The following websites are good sources of information on how the legislative process works in Virginia, and on redistricting:
For more information on Peninsula Voices for Change go here.