What does a political party do, after years of watching from the sidelines, when they finally get control of all the levers of power? It’s not an idle question for a political science class. It’s very real and it’s the question Virginia Democrats will have to answer during the coming session of the General Assembly. With a progressive agenda, a majority in the State Senate and the House of Delegates and a Democratic governor, they are in a position to enact the kind of change they promised. But there is one promise, or at least a constant complaint they said they’d remedy, that could be forgotten if they’re not careful: creating a fair redistricting process.
Democrats in Virginia lived in the political wilderness, even when holding even in the actual voting totals and winning statewide offices. To put it simply, the elections were rigged. Yes, that’s not a nice reference, it seems rather crass, but it describes the situation perfectly. Besides, that’s what gerrymandering is all about. It’s an abuse of democracy. Named for former Vice President Elbridge Gerry, also a former Massachusetts governor, gerrymandering refers to drawing district lines in a way to make sure the election turns out the way you want it to. The principle is simple, create as many districts as possible that favor your party, as few districts as possible that favor your opponent’s party and hopefully not too many swing districts. Starting in 2000, once the GOP took control of the General Assembly, that’s what they did. This pushed the Democrats not just into the minority, but into an ultra-small minority. It was a hole, try as the Democrats might, they couldn’t escape. Thanks to rapid demographic changes and a relatively strong anti-Republican wave in the state, due largely to national politics, they have been able to escape.
Now, here is the moral question. The Republican Party back in 2000 didn’t hold back and arguably abused their power to draw the lines for the General Assembly. Now, they’ve lost that majority, and because this next session coincides with the national census, the Democrats will get to draw the new lines. This is something they are required to do. The big question is, will they forget their promises and draw lines that guarantee them a majority for years to come, or will they do the right thing and come up with a fair and impartial process?
It’s tempting to follow the GOP example from 20 years ago. But the consequences, as we learned, are a direct affront to representative democracy. Two decades ago, the Republicans used some of the best district drawing software available — yes, there is such a thing — to craft districts that would have made Eldridge Gerry proud. Thing is, for most of the intervening 20 years, save for the occasional lively primary, there were rarely any contests of significance in the General Assembly. Oh, seats changed hands, occasionally, but in well over half of the seats, come the general election, there wasn’t even an opponent. Democracy had been effectively subverted. Imagine, over half of Virginia, sometimes more, didn’t even have a choice in who their delegate would be.
The thing is, Article II of Virginia’s Constitution, sadly, apparently without force of law when it comes to redistricting, or just patently ignored, says that districts “shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.” Virginia’s districts are anything but contiguous and compact. Some look more like the images on a Rorschach test than a map of a voting district.
Now, the Democrats have a chance to stop this insane process. It’s simple really. Yes, Virginia, is slowly working towards a constitutional amendment to change its redistricting process. One that creates a redistricting commission. That effort requires amendment to pass the legislature one more time and then be placed on the ballot at the next election. Unfortunately, the next round of redistricting has to be done well before this amendment can be passed. So, what has to happen is a test of political courage. It’s a tough ask, but the Democrats need to create a redistricting commission, something they can do legislatively, ideally composed of some mix of citizens and officeholders, half of one party and half of the other, to draw the lines. And when they’re done, the new district map goes to the legislature for a straight up or down vote. No modifications. This same approach would be applied to Congressional districts as well.
It’s tough, when offered a possible guarantee of power for years, to turn it over almost immediately to a bipartisan commission. They’re giving up a heck of an advantage. But, if representative democracy is to mean anything, then this is the right thing to do and now is the time to do it.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.