Lowell has a an article posted this morning from the Roanoke Times documenting efforts by organizers to put a constitutional amendment on the Virginia ballot in November of 2016 to take political redistricting out of the hands of politicians.
The group, headed by Leigh Middleditch, a Charlottesville attorney and co-founder of The Sorensen Institute is heading the effort, which he says has bi-partisan support from the likes of Senator Creigh Deeds and Lt. Governor Bill Bolling.
Middleditch’s plan is to create a constitutionally protected panel of judges and legislators to oversee all future state redistricting, similar to a system Iowa established in 1980. But Middleditch’s plan hardly resembles the process implemented in Iowa decades ago.
According to Wikipedia:
Iowa conducts redistricting unlike any other state. The Iowa system does not put the task in the hands of a commission, but rather non-partisan legislative staff develop maps for the Iowa House and Senate, as well as U.S. House districts, without any political or election data (including the addresses of incumbents). A 5-person advisory commission is also formed. This is different from all other states. The redistricting plans from the non-partisan legislative staff are then presented to the Iowa Legislature for a straight ‘Up’ or ‘Down’ vote; if the Legislature rejects the redistricting plans, the process starts over. (Eventually, the Iowa Supreme Court will enter the process if the Legislature fails to adopt a plan three times.)
So, in Iowa, non partisan legislative staff develop maps for state legislative seats, as well as congressional seats, without using any political or election data to prepare the the maps; the process is overseen by a five member commission. The process is voted up or down the legislature, and if the process is rejected, it can start over two more time, but if rejected a third time, the issue is decided by the state supreme court, who are elected in the state of Iowa.
The Iowa process seems more non-partisan than the plan Middleditch is talking up. Middleditch’s plan does nothing to remove the legislature from the process of creating the districts, plus, it includes judges in the process, all of whom are approved by the state legislature. Middleditch’s plan is basically business as usual, especially if one party controls both houses of the General Assembly – It’s still the good ole’ boy system that Harry Byrd would be proud of.
The biggest problem with Middleditch’s plan as presented is that it only addresses who should conduct redistricting, but not how, and the Iowa plan actually offers some really good lessons on how it should be done.
As referenced above, the Iowa plan clearly prohibits those who are drawing new maps from using any political or elections data – so districts are being drawn based only on population. In addition, the Article III, Section 37 of the Iowa State Constitution states:
SEC. 37. When a congressional district is
composed of two or more counties it shall not be entirely separated by a county belonging to another district and no county shall be divided in forming a congressional district.
Iowa’s current congressional districts reflect section 37 of the Iowa constitution:
As you can see, the Iowa map is geographically cohesive, unlike the current Virgina map, which has some congressional districts, such as the 1st Congressional District, stretching hundreds of miles across the state, from Fauquier County in Northern Virginia to Newport News in southeastern Virginia:
Now, I know that Fairfax County is simply too large not to split into more than one congressional district. However, in order to prevent a map of of Virginia’s congressional districts to be cut up like some Beverly Hills science project and more resemble the Iowa plan, one could add a section to a constitutional amendment preventing any city or county with less than a population of 500,000 people from being split between two congressional districts. By doing so, it will allow congressional districts to become more geographically cohesive, and keep all other cities and counties intact. Cities like Virginia Beach, Newport News, Hampton and Richmond, and counties like Stafford, Fauquier, Chesterfield and Henrico could no longer be spilt into separate congressional districts.
Middleditch should get a lot of credit for starting a conversation and presenting a plan to fix a system that is obviously broken on many levels, however, his plan in current form replaces one bad plan with another. He and his allies need to focus more of their plan on flushing out how these state legislative and congressional maps would be created, not just by who should create them.