Time for fairness in redistricting

Published 8:47 pm Monday, August 31, 2015

By Dianne Blais and Lois Page

September 1 brings yet another reminder of the partisan rancor that too often paralyzes the Virginia General Assembly these days. Despite convening briefly for a special session in mid-August, that body failed to meet the deadline imposed by a federal court for redrawing the boundaries of the state’s 3rd Congressional District.

To briefly recap, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the General Assembly to go back to the drawing board after it ruled the 2011 Congressional redistricting plan sought to pack as many African-Americans as possible into the district represented by Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Richmond.

Email newsletter signup

Because African-Americans now make up nearly 20 percent of the state’s population, this approach served only to dilute their potential political power in a state that has 10 other congressional districts.

While the legal and political wrangling continues, the failure of the General Assembly to address its responsibilities will likely leave the map-drawing in the hands of the federal judiciary — a job the League of Women Voters of Virginia suspects judges are not eager to take on.

The judges have the opportunity to set a positive example for all future redistricting efforts by using as their starting point the independent, bipartisan redistricting plans that were developed during the last redistricting cycle.

A good redistricting plan would respect natural geographic boundaries, the boundaries of local jurisdictions and communities of interest. If redistricting is done in a way that is fair and non-partisan, it will ultimately produce a result that permits democratic processes to flourish in our state and reflects the true political power of minorities and other ethnic groups within our increasingly diverse Commonwealth.

The court also has the opportunity to follow a key recommendation of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s bipartisan Integrity Commission. The commission recommended amending the Virginia Constitution so future redistricting plans would be drawn by an independent commission, rather than partisan politicians.

It was commendable that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed an independent, bipartisan advisory commission, which held hearings around the state before proposing three different congressional redistricting maps. The commission also encouraged the consideration of the winning maps that emerged from a competition among Virginia college teams that year.

The LWV-VA believes these maps are a good place to begin, because they were developed by persons seeking to adhere to the redistricting requirements embedded in the Virginia Constitution, rather than by persons seeking only to amass enough voters of the right political stripe in their districts to assure re-election.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of using such commissions to draw the boundaries of legislative districts, we believe the current impasse provides the appeals court with a rare opportunity to demonstrate that this approach can work in Virginia.

In doing so, the court can strike a blow for fairness, transparency and good government and take an important step toward promoting a healthier democracy in our very politically polarized state.

The League of Women Voters of Virginia, along with Leagues across the country, continue to press for redistricting reform at the state level. To learn more about redistricting and LWV-VA decades-long efforts to decrease gerrymandering visit www.lwv-va.org/redistrict.html.

A major effort of LWV-VA is to have redistricting reform by 2021, when the next redistricting occurs.

Dianne Blais and Lois Page are co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Virginia. Visit the organization’s website at www.lwv-va.org.