No Backroom Deals on Redistricting, Say the Voters

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    The Committee on Privileges and Elections of the Virginia House held a hearing on redistricting at Mason Hall on the GMU campus Tuesday evening, 5 October. Chairman Mark Cole, (R, 88th) District, was joined on the panel by Delegates David Albo (R, 42d), Rosalyn Dance (D, 63rd), and Jackson Miller (R,50th). This was one of three pre-redistricting hearings being held around the Commonwealth. Delegate Cole pointed out he intended the redistricting process to be fair, have input from everyone, and comply with federal and state constitutions and laws.  He reminded the audience of approximately 50 that they were not there for a debate, but to listen to voters—- and he did get an earful from the thirteen speakers, I think not all of it to his liking.

    Almost every speaker made a point of requesting transparency in the process, and pled for a truly non-partisan (or at least bipartisan) process to replace old-style backroom deals and gerrymandering, a point which did not appear to please Delegate Cole, who sat with his arms crossed during such testimony, although he thanked each speaker graciously for their input.

    Leading off was Tanya Hussein, representing the Fairfax County Federation of Civic Associations, who explained that the federation strongly supported a non-partisan model for achieving redistricting, preferably along the Iowa model which uses an independent commission to do the job, taking into consideration no political voting patterns, but rather population, contiguity, and compactness.  This system would take redistricting out of the political process.

    The most incisive testimony came from two sources: Olga Hernandez, President of the League of Women Voters, and Professor Michael McDonald of GMU, a redistricting specialist who has developed a public mapping software project funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation based on investigation of redistricting projects in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  

    Mrs. Hernandez maintained that partisan gerrymandering, done by both Democrats and Republicans, has so reduced the number of competitive seats that voter turnout has fallen. For example, in the 2007 Virginia Senate races, incumbents in 17 of the 40 races has no opposition, and only 9 of the races were considered competitive; and in the 100 House of Delegates races 57 incumbents had no opposition, and only 12 of the races were considered competitive. That year, 2007, only 30.2 percent of the voters bothered to vote. She said

    “The current system in Virginia only encourages partisan gerrymandering…. this subverts the democratic system because it allows politicians to choose their voters, rather than vice versa. It limits the vetting of new people with new ideas and solutions to public policy issues….One of the most significant effects of partisan gerrymandering…. is its contribution to the increasing polarization in legislative bodies, and ‘with little reason to fear voters, representatives increasingly cater to party insiders and donors rather than to the political center…’ (and) bipartisan compromise around moderate policies has taken a backseat to party loyalty.”

    Professor McDonald arrived with a fat pamphlet explaining the investigation of “potential effects of four criteria on the congressional and state legislative districts in the five Midwestern states,” using mapping software to show the effects of using various guidelines or criteria in drawing the boundaries of the districts. “The drawing of electoral districts is among the least transparent processes in democratic government,” he pointed out, and by using the open source, web-based mapping software they had developed, the Virginia Assembly could make the process transparent and completely accessible to the voters, showing them how various proposed districts would work out. It is not a simple process, he made clear, and each criteria had special political consequences, sometimes surprising, I gathered.

    This request for the use of modern technology and for transparency was echoed by several speakers, some of whom also complained that they had read newspaper accounts and heard rumors of “backroom deals” already in place to carve up the electorate in the same old gerrymandering style of the past, and they were defiant in their requests that this not happen. Kenton Ngo, GMU student and well-known blogger, strongly encouraged the Commission to make use of the many advances in technology to provide the public with maps of proposed new districts. He, too, strongly encouraged an independent commission (i.e., not composed of Assembly politicians) to undertake the task of redistricting.

    Delegate Vivian Watts requested that, however the new district lines are drawn, there be no wholesale changes, that is, unnecessarily moving large areas and people from one district to another, because that made it difficult for voters to hold their elected leadership accountable from one election to the next.  This was a point I had not particularly considered before, but it makes sense. Mrs. Watts used her own district as an example: while only 2 or 3 thousand voters needed to be re-assigned to maintain the one-man-one-vote criterion which requires same-sized electoral districts, her district saw 20,000 voters changed in the last redistricting.

    The Vice-Mayor of Vienna, Mrs. Cole, Ray Baldwin of Vienna, and Dennis Bush of Herndon all requested that, in redistricting, their respective towns be kept as a unit, with a single delegate and a single senator to represent them, rather than splitting a town into fragments tacked on to various districts.  Mr. Baldwin, like others, emphasized that the process be done without regard to voting patterns, and that there be a community of interest kept within a district.  He also reminded the panel that Governor McDonnell promised during his gubernatorial campaign that he would ensure a bipartisan process, and the voters expected him to follow through.

    Representatives from the Latino and Vietnamese communities made a special plea for recognition, and asked that their voting power not be diluted when drawing the new lines.  Interestingly, they pointed out that there were Latino and Asian communities all across the commonwealth, not just in Northern Virginia.

    Several Delegates were in the audience. I saw Vivian Watts, Mark Keam, Adam Ebbin, Charniele Herring, David Bulova, Jim Scott, and Eileen Filler-Corn.

    After the session I approached Delegate Cole as an interested voter, and asked him if he noticed that we the voters were a little bit cynical about the process of redistricting.  He nodded but immediately explained how, when the Democrats redistricted in 1990, the Republicans won, and when the Republican redistricted in 2000 the Democrats won. I suppose he meant to convey that the so-called gerrymandering did not work after all, and therefore we should not be cynical. I responded that that was not what I referred to, but rather that the Commission make use of the new technology to open up the process, making it transparent. That would restore credibility and make the voters less cynical. I could not resist also letting him know that having the elected representatives chose their constituents, as Mrs. Hernandez said, was, frankly, just a little arrogant. I am not sure he got the message.