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Business as usual in Richmond

For most people, whether they follow politics or not, redistricting is one of those topics that has, to borrow a reference from Beatrice Potter’s Peter Rabbit, a “soporific effect.” In other words, it puts them to sleep.

However, if you’re a partisan or an incumbent politician it’s an overriding concern, and one, where more often than not, the fairness of the electoral process gets left in the dust. That’s why more people should be interested.

In Virginia the district lines for the General Assembly and the U.S. Congress are drawn by the legislature. If there was ever a system that has a more inherent conflict of interest, this is it. Last week a member of the House of Delegates offered a bill which would have put the question to the voters. Namely, would you like the district lines for the seats in the General Assembly and for Congress to be drawn by an independent commission? That sounds like good government, but alas, the Republican majority in the House of Delegates, the chief beneficiary of the current system, voting strictly along party lines, said no.

The history of drawing legislative districts is a sad one. Today, we call it Gerrymandering and that dates back to the early 1800’s and a Democratic-Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, who drew some infamously shaped districts to favor his party over the Federalists. And that’s how we’ve been drawing districts ever since. Also, while in Virginia it’s the Republicans who wield the power to draw districts to favor their candidates, this hasn’t always been the case. When the Democrats had a majority they did pretty much the same thing.

However, in the 21st century, Gerrymandering, thanks to block by block demographics, data mining, and sophisticated “redistricting software” has reached a new level of infamy. In the Virginia General Assembly for example, and this approach has been applied to our Congressional districts as well, districts are drawn to create as many lock solid Republican seats, and as few reliable Democratic seats as possible. And most of all, the number of competitive seats, always a danger for those who want to stay in power, is kept to a minimum.

This is done primarily through a practice called packing and cracking. Like minded voters, with an edge to the GOP, are packed together and Democratic areas that if combined with GOP leaning areas might have created competitive seats are cracked, in some truly creative designs, to make sure they’re all packed together as well. The result, is that in last year’s election 80% of the incumbents had no credible opponent. The only serious contests were in about eight seats.

Several states, ones that used to rely on the legislature to draw their districts, have gone to commissions. This includes Vermont, Minnesota, California, and Idaho. Curiously, back when the Democrats had the power over redistricting many in the current GOP leadership had advocated a bipartisan commission. But, when offered that option last week, it was politics as usual, and unfortunately, as usual, the only ones that lost out were the voters.

—Reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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