Why Vir­ginia can’t draw a fair map

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY PETER GALUSZKA Peter Galuszka is a free­lance writer in Ch­ester­field, Va.

For the sec­ond time in four years, fed­eral judges have struck down how the Vir­ginia Gen­eral As­sem­bly has drawn bound­aries of elec­toral dis­tricts to pack in mi­nori­ties and make it eas­ier for white can­di­dates in ad­ja­cent dis­tricts to win elec­tions.

Such se­rial ger­ry­man­der­ing dis­plays cyn­i­cism and racism. Both po­lit­i­cal par­ties have been guilty of this schem­ing. What’s needed is to take the line-draw­ing job from the leg­is­la­ture and give it to a new in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion.

In June, a fed­eral ju­di­cial panel found that 11 dis­tricts for the House of Del­e­gates were ger­ry­man­dered in such a way and or­dered a re­draw­ing by Oct. 30.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called a spe­cial ses­sion of the Gen­eral As­sem­bly Aug. 30 to do just that. But fruit­less squab­bling along party lines ba­si­cally kicked the can down the road, mak­ing it likely that re­dis­trict­ing will be handed over to the court, which will bring in a spe­cial mas­ter to do the job.

It is a re­peat of what hap­pened in 2014 when an­other fed­eral ju­di­cial panel found that the lines-draw­ing for Vir­ginia’s 3rd Con­gres­sional Dis­trict schemed to pack in African Amer­i­can vot­ers to di­lute their in­flu­ence and make it eas­ier for white can­di­dates to win ad­ja­cent dis­tricts.

Just as it is do­ing now, the Gen­eral As­sem­bly sent the re­draw­ing task back to the courts, which brought a spe­cial mas­ter to han­dle it. The re­sults were re­drawn 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 7th Con­gres­sional Dis­tricts.

How many more times this could hap­pen is an open ques­tion.

“Where to be­gin? I think the fact that we are in 2018 ap­proach­ing an­other round of line draw­ing demon­strates how dys­func­tional the cur­rent process is,” says Rebecca Green, a Col­lege of Wil­liam & Mary law pro­fes­sor. She is a mem­ber of a 10-per­son study group set up by OneVir­gina2021, a bi­par­ti­san ef­fort to fight ger­ry­man­der­ing.

For years, cre­at­ing an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion to han­dle line-draw­ing was a leg­isla­tive anath­ema. For it to hap­pen, the Gen­eral As­sem­bly would have to ap­prove a bill twice, which it was loath to do. Then, the pro­posal would have to be ap­proved by vot­ers in a con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum.

Leg­is­la­tors have stub­bornly re­sisted any loss of con­trol and have drawn lines ac­cord­ing to their racial and par­ti­san plans. The Gen­eral As­sem­bly de­cides new lines the year af­ter a fed­eral cen­sus is taken and re­sults are known. The next re­dis­trict­ing is slated for 2021, giv­ing re­form­ers a tar­get to push ahead with their plans.

On Aug. 30 dur­ing the spe­cial ses­sion, leg­is­la­tors bril­liantly dis­played how in­ept they are at han­dling court-or­dered re­dis­trict­ing. The Repub­li­can-con­trolled Gen­eral As­sem­bly shot down a Demo­cratic ef­fort to make some seats more com­pet­i­tive. Northam, who has backed a spe­cial in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion on re­dis­trict­ing, has thrown in the towel. He asked Kirk Cox (Colo­nial Heights), the Repub­li­can speaker of the house, to let the courts de­cide the is­sue. On Sept. 12, Repub­li­cans in­formed the fed­eral court that they were work­ing on an “ad­vanced” re­draw­ing and would have some­thing by Sept. 27.

Part of the Repub­li­cans’ strat­egy is to stall any re­form steps so the U.S. Supreme Court can hear an ap­peal of the fed­eral ju­di­cial panel’s re­dis­trict­ing re­quire­ment. “It’s a last-ditch ef­fort,” says Bob Holsworth, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst in Rich­mond, adding that the GOP leg­is­la­tors hope the high court will stay the de­ci­sion. At stake could be five or six seats now held by Repub­li­cans, he says.

Green says that the time is ripe for an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion to re­draw lines. Vir­ginia vot­ers are in­creas­ingly frus­trated with how the cur­rent elec­toral map pro­tects politi­cians from com­pe­ti­tion. This re­sults in pri­maries be­ing the fo­rum where is­sues are de­bated and in­cum­bents are locked in. When pri­maries dom­i­nate and there is no op­po­si­tion dur­ing the elec­tion, can­di­dates come out with more stri­dent, more par­ti­san plat­forms.

Vot­ers, es­pe­cially ones new to Vir­ginia, are less will­ing to ac­cept the sta­tus quo. Green points out that OneVir­ginia2021 ini­tially had only 3,500 sup­port­ers but now has 86,000 ac­tive mem­bers. She says that when she spoke in North­ern Vir­ginia at a League of Women Vot­ers fo­rum in Fe­bru­ary, even though it was “a freez­ing cold, rainy Sun­day,” more than 400 peo­ple showed up.

Vir­ginia is hardly alone with re­dis­trict­ing woes. A num­ber of states have set up in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sions. North Carolina faces a much worse sit­u­a­tion. Fed­eral judges have struck down the state’s en­tire con­gres­sional map just two months be­fore an elec­tion.

Vir­ginia’s next state elec­tions are in Novem­ber 2019. Green says there’s plenty of time for the courts to re­draw the elec­toral map be­fore then as ef­forts for an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion move for­ward.

“We don’t want for it to be 2028 and we’re still in the same po­si­tion,” she notes.

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