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The shame of Virginia’s redistricting process

If the election were held using the William and Mary model, we’d have competitive races across the commonwealth and democracy would be well served. But, of course, that’s not the way it’s going to happen.

Redistricting is not a pretty thing to watch. It’s the one time every 10 years when whatever party is in power does its best to subvert the principles of representative government. I know that sounds cynical. I didn’t mean it to be. But it’s completely accurate.
Using the recent census data, and sophisticated demographic software, they draw the district lines to make it as easy as possible to keep the party in power in its dominant position. It’s as simple as that. There is nothing democratic or representative about it.
This is easier to do than you think. Modern computer software, specifically designed for this purpose, uses income data, ethnic information, voting history, polling data, and other demographic tools to draw districts all but guaranteed to behave pretty much the way the politicians want them to. Opposition areas are often consolidated, to have as few as possible or heavily diluted, depending on how big they are, so they represent as little a threat as possible to the party in power. The emphasis is on creating as many solid seats for the party in power and giving the opposition as few seats as possible. Most of all, the goal is to keep the number of swing seats to an

absolute minimum.
After the 2000 Census, Republicans did an excellent job of this and for most of the decade the House had only a handful of competitive seats. In 2009 only 47 out of 100 seats in the House of Delegates had any substantial competition. Arguably, this meant that half the voters, whether they liked the Republicans or not, didn’t have a choice. In those districts, there were no candidate’s nights, no candidates going door-to-door, and no heated chats at the bus stop over the merits of teacher pay, environmental cleanup, or state spending. In these districts, the democratic process took a back seat.
With the 2010 census done we’re restarting the decennial process and redistricting. And it promises to be as partisan and contrary to the needs of representative government as ever. This year Democrats control the Senate and  Republicans control the House. The majorities in both houses have already prepared highly partisan redistricting maps. They’re both atrocious. The Senate, for example, in the hands of the Democrats, divides the solidly Democratic Alexandria into three Senate districts in order to give a leg up in possibly electing three Democrats. Ideally the city, having a contiguous population, should have its own representative. But not to be outdone, the Republicans, not that fond of the House Minority leader, Ward Armstrong, in their new map, have redistricted him out of his seat.
It’s an ugly process that subverts the basic principles of democratic representation. The fact that it’s gone on for centuries does nothing to make it more attractive. However, this year, bowing, reluctantly to a campaign promise he made, the governor appointed a redistricting commission. This was inspired, but true to his partisan roots, the governor said recently that whatever they do, that won’t affect his decision on redistricting. I could make a comment about that, but I won’t. The governor said all I need to hear. But, there is a bright light in this. The commission was earnest and in a fit of genius they had a contest that allowed universities and private entrants to design redistricting maps that would be as fair as possible — 61 groups applied.
The criterion was simple. Apply good data and common sense. This means that districts should be competitive, keep people with a common geographical identity together, and not be shaped to support one party or the other. Of course, even then, it’s not easy to do, but William and Mary Law School put together a plan that does an excellent job at meeting this objective. If the election were held using the William and Mary Model we’d have competitive races across the commonwealth and democracy would be well served.
But, of course, that’s not the way it’s going to happen. The politicos will have their pens out, but this time, for the first time ever, bouncing around the Internet, e-mailed here and there, in civics classrooms, at public meetings, there will be the map chosen by the redistricting commission. It will stand there next to the glaring examples of gerrymandering developed by both parties and serve as an example of how redistricting and the redistricting process ought to work.
Will a shining example of how a legislative district map should be drawn shame a few members into changing their ways and redrawing a fairer map? I wouldn’t count on it.
The desire for self preservation in politics is just too strong. But it may make it harder, whether the governor anticipated this or not, to draw a map quite as partisan and as grievously gerrymandered as some had hoped. Because everywhere they go, the model of how it might have been done better, fairer, and more democratically will be there staring them in the face.
You may reach David Kerr
at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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