09/01/10: Finagling lines on a map

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

EVERY 10 YEARS, Virginia undertakes a massive effort that affects each of us: redistricting and reapportionment. Drawing on census data, Virginia’s legislative districts — state House and Senate, plus the U.S. House — are redrawn to reflect population shifts.

Although the results of the 2010 census will not be available until February, the process has already started. A schedule of hearings was recently announced for this fall.

Since the 1960s, the first concern in any redistricting plan is the concept of “one man, one vote.” This requires each district to contain populations roughly equal in size. Over time, other principles — districts should be compact and contiguous and preserve political subdivisions, communities   of interest and cores of prior districts — have been embraced by Virginia. Any plan must comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It has been the custom in most states, including Virginia, that the party in charge of the legislature controls the redistricting process — and this is where things get interesting. Where Democrats are in control, they draw lines favorable to them. Where the Republicans are in control, they do the same. Lost in this are the voters.

Partisan redistricting can be best summed up as legislators choosing their voters. By drawing the lines to make it virtually impossible for a member of the other party to win, the party in control is likely to remain so.

Is it any wonder, then, that voter turnout is low? Voters get little choice, as the number of races that are competitive is small. In 2007, the entire General Assembly was up for re-election. Of the 40 Senate seats, 17 incumbents had no opposition, and only nine races were considered competitive, that is, where the margin of victory was 10 points or less. The 100-member House was even worse: 57 incumbents faced no opposition and only 12 races were considered competitive. The House numbers improved marginally in 2009, with 31 incumbents having no opposition but still only 13 competitive races.

Things aren’t much better in our 11 congressional districts. In 2008, two of the incumbents had no opponent, and only three of the races were considered competitive. Heading into November, all 11 incumbents have opponents, but only two, perhaps three, of these races are considered competitive.

This is tyranny of the majority at its worst, but there is an alternative.

One-fourth of the states have adopted redistricting reform, with 12 states giving the authority for drawing districts to a group other than the legislature. Six of those states give the authority for drawing congressional districts to a redistricting commission. The model provided by Iowa is considered to be the one least influenced by partisan politics.

Since 2007, Virginia has had a split legislature — Republicans control the House, while Democrats control the Senate. One would think that would lead to some kind of reform, but it has not. Legislation has been killed each year, sometimes in hastily called early-morning subcommittee meetings composed of five or six legislators.

Advocates of reform have traditionally been members of the party not in power. The latest effort, though, has taken on a bipartisan tone. The Virginia Redistricting Coalition (www.fixthelines.org), to which I have been an adviser, is made up of businesses, organizations, individuals and, yes, legislators who are committed to redistricting reform. Among its members is Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who persuaded his running mate, Gov. Bob McDonnell, to support it. But it seems this is one campaign promise the governor won’t keep.

The governor has remained mute on the topic as the legislature killed another bill this past session. Now that the redistricting subcommittee has announced hearings, it has preempted almost any attempt the governor might make.

There is nothing more important to our democracy than having our votes matter.

The region’s residents will have the opportunity to weigh in on redistricting at a hearing Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. at the Roper Performing Arts Center of Tidewater Community College in Norfolk.