In November 2015, I was first approached about producing and directing a documentary for Community Idea Stations (Richmond PBS) on the subject of gerrymandering and redistricting reform. As someone who already had an interest in the subject, I only became more committed to the project as I met with members of the non-profit interest group OneVirginia2021, which is dedicated to bringing reform to the commonwealth.
For one thing, the issue is a no-brainer. Simple common sense tells us it is not a good idea to have political boundary lines drawn by the very officials who stand to benefit from creatively designing the districts in which they run. That is, of course, the definition of gerrymandering, and it has been practiced by both major political parties. If you’re in power, you do whatever you legally can to stay in power.
That non-partisan aspect to the issue was another thing that attracted me. Long before I came on board for this project, OneVirginia2021 had amassed a board made up of representatives from both sides of the political spectrum and those in between. For a former reporter like me, the opportunity to produce a documentary with a definite perspective with the help of allies among all political persuasions made it all the more attractive. It meant appealing to the better natures of us all. There are no angels and no devils; just opportunists. And doing away with gerrymandering, even if your side is in control, is a matter of good government.
It’s reasonable to ask, of course, why we suddenly care so much about politicians drawing district lines in a self-serving manner. It goes all the way back to 1812 and Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry (right), for whom the practice was named when he drew a district that resembled a salamander. Actually, we had the opportunity as good Virginians to point out that one of our own really tried it first. The Old Dominion’s first governor, Patrick Henry, tried it in 1788, but it failed, so he escaped having it named after him.
The reason we care more today, or should, is that modern computer programs and sophisticated algorithms allow gerrymandering to be practiced with remarkable specificity. The person in that house voted in Democratic primaries and subscribes to Mother Jones? Let’s just draw the district line around that house. And where will be that voter go? Well, maybe we’ll pack him in a district with lots of other Democrats. If we do our job well, we’ll sacrifice that district to the Democrats, but we can also ensure that the four other districts surrounding it will all vote Republican.
And, once we’ve finished our creative cartography, we have succeeded in ensuring our incumbents’ re-election and our party’s continued dominance. Think of the effects that has. Apathy, for one. Why should I bother voting when I know my candidate can’t possibly win? In fact, I probably don’t even have a candidate if I don’t care for the incumbent. Why should anyone oppose that incumbent when the fix is already in? Chances are that incumbent is unopposed in the general election.
But you know what incumbents ARE worried about? A challenge from within their own party. That’s where incumbents can be vulnerable even in districts made safe for their party. The way I, as the incumbent, keep that from happening is to make sure I always take a hard-line stance that prevents me from being vulnerable to a challenge from the party base. To take a more moderate stance, to perhaps even compromise with the other side, is to open myself up for a primary defeat. Whichever way, the candidate who goes on to represent my party in the general election will be a less moderate candidate. What we’ll end up with are more left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans, and we all know what happens then: The exact kind of gridlock that we’ve seen all too much of and that prevents anything of substance from getting done. It’s the opposite of good government.
If it sounds like I’m suggesting that gerrymandering leads to a host of other political and societal ills, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Apathy, lack of competition, hyper-partisanship – all are as predictable as death and taxes. How could anyone oppose the effort to end this perversion of the system and restore politics to a place where representatives have an incentive to act in the interests of their constituents?
Generally, there are two primary arguments against reform. One is based on the general observation that the drawing of district lines is an inherently political process; one that should be accomplished through traditional political means, and that the voters have the power to punish those who overplay their hand. While this may be true, it ignores the fact that voters are conditioned through apathy to avoid the very actions that could lead to reform. The other argument is that the establishment of an independent commission, one of the most common methods of reform, would never be truly independent. The retort to this argument is that the commission would be independent of the politicians whose lines are being redrawn.
There are examples of states, from California to Iowa and Ohio, that are showing the process can be reformed. Some work better than others, and some are products of voter initiatives that are not available to voters in Virginia and other states. Still, despite the parliamentary maneuvers that have prevented reform measures from making their way out of stacked House subcommittees, there is reason to believe that redistricting reform’s time may have arrived in Virginia. It can happen as voters educate themselves and demand reform from their representatives.
Mayor Kenny Alexander of Norfolk and Mayor Will Sessoms of Virginia Beach are joining OneVirginia2021 for a special FREE screening of our WCVE/PBS documentary and a discussion afterward about the path toward redistricting reform. This takes place tomorrow from 7pm to 9pm at Virginia Wesleyan. For more info, click here.