Home Virginia Politics Twelve Days of Christmas for Virginia Democrats: Day Ten, Independent Redistricting?

Twelve Days of Christmas for Virginia Democrats: Day Ten, Independent Redistricting?


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Welcome to this twelve part series looking at the challenges, obstacles, and future possibilities of Virginia Democrats. As we approach the end, take a look back at some of the earlier diaries: Day One, Competitive Districts. Day Two, Turnout Problems. Day Three, Past Mistakes. Day Four, Downstate Democrats. Day Five, Unchallenged Incumbents. Day Six, Present Opportunities. Day Seven, Democratic Trends. Day Eight, Swing Voters. Day Nine, 2021 Redistricting. Thank you for reading.

On the tenth day of Christmas, the Commonwealth of Virginia gave to me…Independent Redistricting, the long awaited for, much hoped for, yet ever-elusive good government reform that will reconnect politicians with voters, end polarization, and put Virginia back on track.

Well, no. If you want to really reconnect politicians with voters, you need to expand the number of districts so there are fewer people per district. End polarization? Political scientists have found little to no evidence that gerrymandering is driving polarization; you’ll have to tackle housing preferences and the individual sorting of voters to do that. Independent redistricting will not even solve all the challenges and obstacles of the Virginia Democratic Party, as the first diary showed that there are many Democratic-leaning seats that the state party is not winning at this time.

So why talk about redistricting reform?

Because unlike campaign finance reform or expanding the size of the General Assembly, independent redistricting, or at least something more partisan-neutral, may be closer to reality than you think.

In 2011, vulnerable Democrats in the State Senate decided to strike a deal with House Republicans, passing a Democratic gerrymandering of the State Senate in exchange for letting the GOP have its way with the other chamber. You can criticize the outcome after the fact, but you can’t dispute the results when you look at the big picture: the increased Democratic performance may have saved Marsden, Colgan, and Miller. Failures elsewhere cost us the State Senate, but we’re still in the game because of the Democratic lines.

The concern for Democrats in 2011 was that interim, court-drawn lines resulting from an impasse between the two chambers could still have produced a Republican takeover. Based on the Republican ramming through of new, incumbent-friendly Congressional lines after the election, and the failure of the Democratic legal effort to argue that the General Assembly could only redistrict in 2011, it’s clear that Republicans could have followed this approach. In fact, in 2013 Senate Republicans tried to pass a re-redistricting of the State Senate, but backed down following a public outcry and probable concerns of how it would impact the election in November. Drawing new lines after the courts had to step in would probably not have created the same outcry. Looking ahead to 2021, we know the GOP will fight dirty.

What can Democrats do?

If Democrats are entirely shut out of the redistricting process, they will have to fall back to legal tactics, primarily around the Voting Rights Act. In 2011, the “Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting” observed that a 13th minority-majority district in south Hampton Roads could be drawn. In 2013, Republicans proposed a new minority-majority State Senate district stretching from Danville to Petersburg to provide political cover and to woe some House Democrats. And as we saw on day nine, a second minority-majority Congressional District may be possible in 2021. In fact, the ACLU of Virginia argued that a second one was possible (technically, barely) in 2011.

Without any power in Richmond, the best effort from Democrats would be to argue that any failure to make progress on minority representation in Virginia falls short of complying with the Voting Rights Act. None of the above touches on other, new issues that could arise from the growth in the minority community in Northern Virginia, but a VRA case is less likely there. Given the tight calendar facing redistricting in Virginia, Democrats could argue that there simply isn’t enough time for a court to reject the Republican redistricting and have a special session convene to redo the lines, especially since those lines could still be questionable and thrown out by the courts again. It would be up to the courts to redraw the lines to comply with the VRA … unfortunately, based on some precedent from Texas, the courts would probably limit themselves to just creating minority-majority districts in compliance with the VRA. If the Republican gerrymandering redrew 25th State Senate seat to stretch from Charlottesville to Staunton and Harrisonburg, or cut the 21st down deeper into Southwest Virginia, the courts would likely leave those districts untouched.

So Democrats better at least win the governor’s race in 2017, or pick up outright control of the State Senate in 2015 or 2019.

In 2021, the pressure for redistricting would be entirely driven by the House being up for reelection. Either the Democratic governor or Democratic State Senate could block redistricting, calling for a nonpartisan process. A Democratic governor, facing the one-term limit and looking for a legacy, could certainly position himself or herself for commending editorials for taking such a stand.  Even the Democratic State Senate could position the party for a platform of reform going into the 2021 election. Redistricting reform alone is not a top-tier issue, but it can be part of a package of issues addressing concerns over corruption. You never know when there will be another Republican Governor with questionable ethics.

The worst possible outcome is a Democratic governor, standing alone against a Republican General Assembly, handing over the office to a Republican elected in 2021. The new Republican trifecta would quickly get to work. But would that be any worse than the original scenario of the same Republican General Assembly drawing the lines? Not at all!

In every other scenario, Democrats would still have a seat at the table. The election of a Democratic governor, in any situation, could be used as a popular mandate for reform. Even if a Republican governor is elected and only a Democratic State Senate holds out, the option still remains to cut a deal, much like in 2011, or hold out until the courts are forced to step in by 2023. Waiting until 2022 to cut a deal, instead of rushing into one in 2021, seems like a minor downside. More importantly, a court-drawn House of Delegates map during the relatively higher turnout from a governor’s election could be the best shot for Democrats to make significant gains in the House of Delegates.

That’s the strategy for Virginia Democrats. What’s next?

First, encourage candidates for all offices, from governor to delegate, to commit to pushing for independent redistricting.

Second, realize that even though redistricting isn’t until 2021, there’s plenty of reason to start now. The timeline for the aforementioned “Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting” was set so that their recommendations came late in the General Assembly’s consideration of new lines. Governor McDonnell waited until January 2011 to sign the executive order creating his commission. As part of a broader commission on ethics and government reform, Governor McAuliffe could appoint a non-binding, advisory commission to look at redistricting reform.

Furthermore, as a bargaining piece, Democrats could at least push for the infrastructure for an independent, bipartisan commission to be formed to give specific recommendations on new lines. Although final census numbers wouldn’t be out in 2020, the next commission should start earlier so that public hearings could be held on a wide range of issues, including identifying cohesive communities of interest and how to best implement the Voting Rights Act in a variety of scenarios (including adding districts). The previous commission held only four public forums: Richmond, Roanoke, Fairfax, and Norfolk. Starting in 2019 and 2020, the proposed commission could not only discuss the redistricting process, but also highlight the importance of the census and ensure that Virginia has a high response rate. Not only does this foster civic engagement, the latter also would be crucial to ensuring we pick up a 12th congressional seat.

Although an ideal commission would be binding, a first step would be to establish a non-binding commission that has more weight behind it than the 2011 incarnation. More public meetings and more time to prepare recommendations would elevate any commission, binding or not.

Finally, Virginia Democrats need to have their own internal conversation about equality and diversity. No one spoke up for an additional 13th minority-majority district in the House of Delegates during the last redistricting. Republicans, not Democrats, proposed an additional minority-majority State Senate seat, although as a political ploy. The effort to create a new minority-majority seat at the Congressional level always felt like a lackluster, desperate attempt to pick up some minor gain in the national redistricting after the incumbents, including Gerry Connolly, cut their own deal on the lines. There needs to be consistency in pushing for an equal voice for all Virginians, although we should also understand that this fight could upset some within our own party. The proposal from the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting to create a 13th minority-majority delegates district would have significantly altered the district currently represented by Delegate Spruill. Other nonpartisan proposals from the college competition in Virginia would have created a new minority-majority district further west in Southside to replace the existing 75th, but one that would be far more competitive in lower turnout elections. There may be downsides, or at least vested interest upset with our proposals.

On that note, what issue will Democrats be rallying around in 2017 and beyond? Will we still be trying to fix transportation and expand Medicaid? Will social issues be at the forefront? Vote below!

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