Gillespie, Northam strike different tones on need for redistricting reform
When redistricting came up at the first debate of the Virginia governor’s race, Democrat Ralph Northam turned to Republican Ed Gillespie with a ready- made attack line.
“You were the architect of what we see now as current- day gerrymandering,” Northam said.
“It was Elbridge Gerry. But ... ” Gillespie inter- jected, referring to the Massachusetts governor who became the patron saint of partisan mapdrawing in 1812 when he approved a legislative district that looked like a salamander.
It may not rev up the crowds on the campaign trail, but few issues in the gubernatorial race will shape the future of Virginia politics more than redistricting. When the
General Assembly redraws Virginia’s congressional and legislative electoral maps after the 2020 census, the next governor will have the power to sign off on or veto lawmakers’ proposed new political districts.
Even though Virginia Democrats are riding a winning streak in statewide elections that dates to 2009, Republicans have majorities in both statehouse chambers and hold seven of the state’s 11 seats in the U. S. House of Representatives. In many legislative races, incumbents go unchallenged or cruise to easy victories over longshot challengers.
Defenders of the state’s electoral maps say the balance of power can be explained largely by GOP- favorable turnout in off- year elections and the fact that Democratic voters tend to cluster in population centers while Republican voters are spread across a larger geographic area. To critics, it’s a sign that the often bizarrely shaped districts were drawn that way for a reason: To rig the map for maximum political advantage.
Calls for taking map- drawing power away from politicians by establishing a nonpartisan, independent redistricting process have gained some bipartisan support at the General Assembly, but Northam and Gillespie have struck different tones on the question of whether reform is needed.
Northam, the beneficiary of a $ 500,000 donation from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee led by former U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder, has declared support early and often for nonpartisan redistricting.
“I will stop the gerrymandering,” Northam said at the mid- July debate in Hot Springs. “And I will not sign a map unless it is drawn by a nonpartisan redistricting commission.”
“It’s hard to take the politics out of politics,” said Gillespie, who once led a national redistricting effort to preserve and grow GOP power in statehouses and Congress through the Republican State Leadership Committee. Its Redistricting Majority Project was called REDMAP.
Gillespie added that although he agrees that the technological precision of modern map- drawing probably has been a factor in America’s political polarization, he’s not convinced that nonpartisan maps would be a dramatic improvement over the partisan ones.
“I don’t rule out the notion of redistricting reform, but I’m not putting forward my own plan in that regard,” Gillespie said in a recent interview.
Brian Cannon, executive director of redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021, called Gillespie’s stance “disappointing” given that the Republican has come out with detailed proposals for everything from taxes to fireworks.
“He would be a great ally to help fix it,” Cannon said. “But he has not been willing to walk through that door.”
The anti- gerrymandering effort has drawn some bipartisan support in the General Assembly, including from state Sen. Jill Vogel, R- Fauquier, Gillespie’s current ticket mate as the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor.
But many Republicans — some of whom feel the true aim of the ostensibly nonpartisan push is to oust GOP lawmakers without having to win at the ballot box— have balked at the idea, arguing that Democrats too have drawn maps to their advantage when they have had the power to do so.
The strength of the Republicans’
66- 34 majority in the House of Delegates will be tested in next month’s election, when Democrats will hope to see several GOP- held seats in suburban areas flip to their column.
Even if Democrats only pick up a handful of seats in the House this year, there’s a strong chance that several redistricting lawsuits in the works could lead to new district lines and even trigger a round of special elections next year.
This week, a panel of federal judges in Richmond will hold a hearing in a case that argues that in the last round of re- districting, after the 2010 census, the House of Delegates unconstitutionally packed too many African- American voters into majority- minority districts, diluting their voting power elsewhere.
In March, the U. S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the Eastern District of Virginia for further examination, ruling the lower court had erred in an earlier ruling upholding the constitutionality of the districts in question.
On Oct. 17, the Supreme Court of Virginia will hear an appeal in a case brought by OneVirginia2021 that argues several House districts are so oddly shaped they violate constitutional requirements for compactness.
Virginia’s congressional boundaries also were subject to legal action after the redistricting that followed the 2010 census.
In January 2016, a three- judge panel imposed a new Virginia congressional map after ruling that Virginia legislators had packed too many additional black voters into the 3rd District, represented by Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat.
Scott’s district, which formerly meandered from the Richmond area to Newport News, now is confined to Hampton Roads. In redrawing Scott’s 3rd District, the judges also changed boundaries of surrounding districts, most notably the 4th. In November 2016, Democrats flipped that newly reconfigured district, as A. Donald McEachin was elected to a seat that now covers much of the Richmond region. firstname.lastname@example.org
Calls for taking map-drawing power away from politicians by establishing a nonpartisan, independent redistricting process have gained some bipartisan support at the General Assembly,