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It’s 2017 and guess what? Virginia is STILL trying to finalize its redistricting plans…based on the 2010 census. What is going on?
The constitution entrusts the process of drawing state legislative and congressional district lines to the state legislatures. With few exceptions, this means that the process of drawing those district lines lies in the hands of the party that controls the state legislature. The result has been and continues to be a rancorous, expensive ritual that was supposed to be decennial but, at least in Virginia, has become a constant preoccupation of our elected officials. Instead of occurring once every ten years, it seems to take ten years to try to do it correctly.
This is a heinous conflict of interest: our elected officials condition the process by which they are returned to office. This is akin to a baseball pitcher altering the strike zone every time he faces a batter or a golfer moving the pin to suit her putting. These are venal, silly examples of situations in which anyone would cry “foul”. So why do we sit back and ignore cries of foul about the redistricting process?
In fact, “redistricting” is a misnomer. Our voting districts are “gerrymandered.” Every line, every twist and turn is designed to create districts that, first and foremost, suit the partisan interests of the legislative majority and legislative incumbents. The process is constrained by the one person, one vote requirement and the Voting Rights Act’s restrictions on discriminating against minority voters. But, state legislators can and do work around these constraints to draw contorted voting districts that have served only to ensure that incumbents are essentially unbeatable, challengers don’t have a chance and, in the end, voters really have little choice on Election Day.
This applies to any district, regardless of the race, party or gender of the incumbents. At the congressional level, Republican Bob Goodlatte has been as unbeatable as Democrat Bobby Scott. Unless they are surprised in a primary (as Eric Cantor was in 2014), our congressional incumbents leave office only through retirement or natural causes. As a result, there is almost no reason to vote in a Virginia congressional election. The typical margin of incumbent victory is so large that voting for the incumbent is as much a waste of time (she is going to win anyway) as voting against one (he is going to win anyway).
One of the terrible ironies of all this is that the Voting Rights Act has been undermined by gerrymandering. Sure, districts are drawn to embrace majorities of Hispanic, black or other minority voters where possible. But, in the end, those minority incumbents are as unbeatable as their Anglo colleagues. The result is that the VRA has become simply an instrument to return racial minority incumbents to office as easily as white incumbents. Meanwhile, minority voters are given as poor a choice on Election Day as their white counterparts.
Some would say this is progress in the march towards racial equality and fairness: elections are equally uncompetitive and voters have equally poor choices regardless of their race, creed, gender and so forth.
But, the Voting Rights Act and elections are about the rights of voters—not the interests of elected officials. Elections should provide voters with real choices among candidates. Elections should entail meaningful campaigns and appeals to voters every year. Instead, the product of some 50+ years of redistricting, gerrymandering, litigation and Supreme Court decisions is poor turnout, meaningless Election Day choices, gerrymandered districts and essentially unbeatable incumbents.
What is most appalling and disturbing is that the process in Virginia could be improved so easily. Twenty one states use nonpartisan redistricting commissions. This removes the conflict of interest from the districting process. Doing this decreases the likelihood of going to court because neutral districting principles (maintaining equal populations, tending to minority populations, respecting municipal boundaries) take precedence.
Instead, the conflicts of interest that inhere in the process render it appallingly expensive. As an example: since the legislature did a poor job drawing the congressional district lines last time around, a special master was called in at the cost of more than $80,000. You read that correctly: the taxpayers forked out $80,000 for someone to draw 11 districts—and there is no guaranty that they will pass constitutional muster.
To put this in perspective: $80,000 would hire one or two teachers for a year in most of our Commonwealth’s public school systems.
That fee does not include litigation costs, court fees, and the opportunity cost of dedicating legislators’ time to tweaking district lines that could be otherwise spent on the budget, health care, road, jobs, etc. Virginia has 40 Senate districts and 100 house districts. One can only imagine how much the taxpayers will bleed to pay consultants (instead of a commission) to draw district lines.
In defense of this system, legislators or apologists will argue that redistricting should be in the hands of elected officials because they know best what is in the interests of their constituents. But, if we end up turning the process over to private consultants and litigants, that connection is clearly broken. Virginia’s redistricting history over the past several decades indicates that this connection is seldom preserved.
So, redistricting serves the interests of incumbents, political consultants and litigants—all at the fiscal and democratic expense of the voters whose interests the process should be serving. It’s time to join the other 21 states that use redistricting commissions. End the gerrymandering of Virginia voters.