10/09/14: Make most of a do-over for the 3rd

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

A FEDERAL COURT ruling Tuesday has given Virginia a second chance to get it right on its gerrymandered congressional districts. In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia held that race was the dominant factor in the drawing of the lines for the 3rd congressional district.

The entire redistricting plan was declared unconstitutional and the legislature has until April 1, 2015, to adopt a new one.

Reading through the 48-page majority opinion and the accompanying 54-page dissent is a lesson in all that is wrong with allowing the legislature to configure legislative districts.

Rather than race, the defendants argue that the protection of Republican incumbents — eight of Virginia’s 11 representatives — is the reason the 3rd is shaped so oddly.

Incumbent protection, as odd as it may seem, isn’t against the law, and the current districts are each a little better for incumbents than they were before. The court found, however, that while incumbent protection was a consideration, it wasn’t the overriding one.

Redistricting and reapportionment — the drawing of the district lines and the distribution of population into equally sized districts, respectively — are required after each decennial census. Virginia underwent this process beginning in 2011 and adopted plans for its state legislative districts.

The House and Senate couldn’t agree on a plan for the congressional districts, so action was delayed. The November 2011 elections resulted in a Senate evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The Republican lieutenant governor provided a crucial 21st vote, giving his party the majority in that chamber; Republicans already enjoyed a significant majority in the House.

In the 2012 legislative session, the legislature quickly approved a congressional redistricting bill, primarily authored by now former Del. William Janis, a Republican from Glen Allen. The 3rd, a minority-majority district created in 1991, was even less compact than before and is the least compact district in the commonwealth. When drawing the maps, Janis admitted he didn’t examine compactness scores, a mathematical calculation.

In addition to compactness, the Virginia constitution requires that districts be contiguous. The Virginia Supreme Court has previously said that water can be used to render a district compact. The 3rd meanders along the James River, meeting that portion of the criteria.

The real smoking gun here, though, is that the district increased the black voting age population and did so using a rather arbitrary measure. Prior to redistricting, the 3rd had a BVAP of 53.1 percent. This increased to 56.3 percent, after the legislature adopted a 55 percent minimum. They considered this floor to be necessary to obtain Department of Justice preclearance.

The floor, by itself, isn’t disqualifying. But it violates the rule that a district’s revision be narrowly tailored to allow voters to elect a candidate of their choice. No such evidence was presented; the court’s ruling makes it clear that nothing had been a barrier to U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott’s reelection over the past 20 years.

Perhaps the one thing that came from the public hearings I attended prior to redistricting, and which the court cited in its opinion, was the abandonment of the goal of maintaining communities.

The 3rd, as currently drawn, ignores an important redistricting principle: respect for political subdivision.

“The Third Congressional District splits more local political boundaries than any other district in Virginia,” the opinion declares. Newport News, Hampton and Norfolk are among the localities represented by more than one congressman. The 3rd also contains most of the split voting precincts — 14 of the 20 in the adopted plan.

It has never made sense to me that legislators get to choose their voters rather than the other way around. Of the 11 congressional districts, all of which are on the ballot next month, only the 3rd lacks a challenger. Only one or two other contests are considered competitive. That disenfranchises the majority of voters in Virginia, regardless of race.

The legislature has its mandate to redraw the lines. We, the voters, have a mandate, too: to participate fully in the process and hold accountable those who would reduce us to nothing but a number.

It’s not often that we get the opportunity for a do-over. Let’s make this one count.