Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court chose to avoid direct interference in Virginia politics. Instead, by denying that the House of Delegates had “standing” to appeal a lower court’s decision, it imposed direct judicial interference in Virginia elections: Sometimes not deciding can be decisive.
As a reminder: A three-judge district court panel had found that the 2011 redrawing of 11 House of Delegates districts had a racial bias in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The House was given several months to create a new map. Lawmakers could not — or would not — do so, so the court opted for a court-appointed monitor. The monitor then chose to remedy the 11 districts found to have racial packing by realigning a total of 26 districts.
I do not believe the General Assembly lawmakers had racist intent when setting up the 11 problem districts. They instead chose self-preservation, as most politicians do, over the best interests of the people.
While the facts may show certain districts to be deliberately predominantly African American, I don’t think that was the goal. It was simply the consequences of trying to pack Democratic voters, of whatever color, together.
The 2011 Virginia House was predominantly Republican and wanted to maintain its majority. By picking and choosing which precincts formed which House districts, lawmakers sought to diminish Democratic voting power. In guaranteeing the other side one bright blue district, the House Republicans were able to protect multiple red districts.
And let’s be clear: This was learned behavior, not a sudden bright idea by some just-elected eager beaver. It started with Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812. He had instituted a law establishing a partisan district that was so oddly shaped as to resemble a mythological salamander. Thus the “Gerrymander” was created.
From that first Boston deformity, thousands of oddly shaped creations were spawned, nationwide, to rig the system. Virginia Democrats had had their day in using the device during the Byrd machine years.
So what’s the problem? If everybody does it; how can it be wrong?
Well, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to get it right in noting: “The House does not select its own members. Instead, it is a representative body composed of members chosen by the people.” Gerrymandering is meant to cause the opposite.
When having majority control, parties have sought to limit who can vote and to diminish the impact of the opposition. They think of themselves as later day Henry Fords. Just as he was known for offering customers any color they wanted “as long as it was black,” our representatives offer us districts, and candidates, in any color we want as long as they are a preassigned “red” or “blue.”
If the result of the new districts does in fact flip both houses of the General Assembly to Democratic, we may see a full flip in opinions from both parties. Republicans, in seeing a “D” behind the names of the governor and a majority of the House and Senate members, may see the wisdom of a less partisan commission drawing the new post-Census districts.
Conversely, the Democrats might then be inclined to say, “Not so fast. We were mistaken; voting districts are best drawn by the people’s [elected] representatives.”
Earlier this year, Sen. Emmett Hanger put forward legislation to amend the Virginia Constitution to remedy the misuse of political redistricting. And while his legislation was passed by large bipartisan margins, we should not consider the proposed remedy as a sure thing. It requires another General Assembly vote next year, and then a statewide referendum.
The cynic in me can’t help but wonder if any of this year’s support was simply a safety play awaiting this November’s results. If one party captures both the House and the Senate, who would bet against defections from the prevailing party wanting one more bite of a spoiled apple?
The Virginia Redistricting Commission is proposed to have eight legislators and eight citizens (selected by retired judges), and a “citizen chairman.” For a map to be approved, six members of each group (legislators and citizens) must support it.
I am sure other ideas with various levels of merit exist, but as the saying goes: “We cannot allow the perfect be the enemy of the good.” We have waited long enough to be freed from the stench of the odious gerrymander. Let’s hope its expiration date is 2020.