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Editorial: Legislators rig the redistricting system to benefit themselves

Editorial: Legislators rig the redistricting system to benefit themselves

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The fix is in.

Virginians this fall are being asked whether to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would take the power of drawing new legislative lines out of the hands of the majority party in the General Assembly and give it to a bipartisan commission composed of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats, who for years argued in favor some sort of commission when they were the minority party, have mysteriously decided this particular version isn’t quite good enough and now argue for a “no” vote. Of course, now they are in the majority and a “no” vote means they, and they alone, will get to draw the lines next year after the census numbers come in.

Their arguments against the imperfection of the proposed amendment are not without merit (the most compelling is the absence of any guarantee of minority representation), but they are also mightily convenient.

Voters have a choice between an imperfect method versus the current method of letting the majority party have its way with the minority party. In other words, we have a choice between the devil we don’t know (a forced collaboration between the two parties) and the devil we do know (gerrymandering). There’s no guarantee that a vote in favor of Amendment One will result in logically drawn districts, but we have several hundred years of history to show that without the amendment, the majority party will most certainly draw weirdly shaped districts to its benefit. That’s what Democrats used to do when they controlled the legislature. That’s what Republicans did when they came into power. To expect the current Democratic legislature to do otherwise is to believe that the sun tomorrow will come up in the west.

In any case, that’s not what this is about — this is just the context for what comes next. Regardless of who draws the lines, we know the lines will be redrawn and some work is already underway to make that happen. Mapping software must be purchased, and mapping data has to be loaded into that software. Working on some of the details is an obscure — but important — little body called the Joint Reapportionment Committee, composed of delegates and senators from the two chambers’ election-related committees. The Virginia Mercury reports that the panel voted last week to include legislators’ home addresses in the data that will be used for drawing new lines — regardless of which method is adopted.

Why does this matter? Gerrymandering doesn’t just mean drawing lines that concentrate one party’s voters for maximum effect and chopping up the other party’s voters into multiple districts where their impact will be diluted. It sometimes means drawing lines that protect the majority party’s incumbents — and punish ones from the other side. When Democrats redrew the state Senate lines after the 2010 census, they grouped as many Republican senators as possible in the same district — hoping that would eliminate at least one of them. Why does the 23rd Senate District stretch all the way from the Campbell County-Appomattox County line west of Lynchburg to Craig County and the West Virginia line? Because Democrats in 2011 were gleeful at the prospect of drawing two Republican state senators — Steve Newman of Lynchburg and Ralph Smith of Botetourt County — into the same district. Republicans (with some help from voters) foiled those plans. Smith moved into the district then held by Republican Bill Stanley of Franklin County and Stanley moved into another district, then held by Democrat Roscoe Reynolds of Henry County. The upshot was that all three Republicans won, which wasn’t the Democrats’ plan. Still the point was to inconvenience as many Republican legislators as possible. Likewise, in the 1980s two Roanoke delegates — Chip Woodrum and Vic Thomas — lived quite close to one another in South Roanoke. Amazingly, Democrats found a way to draw them into separate districts. Our two examples here both involve Democrats but Republicans are quite capable for similar cartographical tricks.

The whole point of trying to reform the redistricting process is to prevent such shenanigans — to get both sensibly drawn districts as well as avoid the unseemly spectacle of legislators choosing their voters and not the other way around. Yet that’s exactly what this move enables. The only reason why mapmakers — be they a bipartisan commission or the majority party alone — need to know where legislators live is to draw lines favorable for the incumbents. Oops, we can’t draw the lines that way — that would put Sen. Flugelhorn and Sen. Hornblower in the same district. Or, if you’re intending mischief for the other side: You know, if we drew the lines this way and not that way, we could put Flugelhorn and Hornblower in the same district. Let them fight it out! Virginia Cage Match!

Voters who intend to vote “no” on Amendment One are saying they’re quite content with that — as long as the results benefit Democrats. Voters checking off “yes,” however, are likely saying they want the lines drawn without respect for where legislators live. Legislators, by last week’s home address vote, have now undermined that. And, lo, it was a bipartisan vote! Two Democrats (Del. Marcus Simon and state Sen. Janet Howell, both of Fairfax County) joined with three Republicans (Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier County, and Dels. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania County and Chris Runion, R-Rockingham County) for a 5-3 majority. Three Democrats — Dels. Joe Lindsey of Norfolk and Cia Price of Newport News and state Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County — voted against.

Howell was quite plain about her “yes” vote: “The argument for including incumbents’ residences was the belief that we actually are not equal to everybody else. We have been elected in the past. And that should give us special status. Now whether anybody thinks that way anymore, I don’t know. But that was the thinking back 10 years ago.”

This vote signals what we could get from a bipartisan commission — a bipartisan agreement to protect incumbents from both parties. And yet the only option is to allow Democrats to have unfettered power to draw the lines the way they choose. By this vote, Democratic incumbents have an advantage either way.

Voters who want lines drawn without special favors for incumbents are simply out of luck. Like we said: The fix is in.

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