Screening planned of gerrymandering documentary

Published 9:54 pm Friday, December 2, 2016

A documentary screening and discussion on the topic of gerrymandering in redistricting will take place this Tuesday at King’s Fork High School.

The documentary, “GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy on its Head,” looks at the process of how voting districts are drawn and explores how redistricting reform can take place.

Bringing the documentary to Suffolk was a collaborative effort by a group including former Suffolk mayor Dana E. Dickens and Community Action Coalition of Suffolk VA leader Robert Stephens.

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“I’ve often thought that we were making a big mistake by not making our districts more compact,” Dickens said recently. “I just thought it would be a lot better process if we tried to make those districts more compact and recognize that the political party that was in control had the opportunity to draw the lines the way they want to draw them.”

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing district boundaries precisely so that the legislators drawing the lines get to include only the voting population they want — and exclude those they don’t want, usually because of political or racial motivations. Doing so makes it easier for incumbents to get re-elected and more difficult for challengers to win.

Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021 — which partnered on the production of the PBS documentary — said many people do not realize how bipartisan the process of gerrymandering is. Legislators who, often, can’t seem to agree on much else come together to make sure everyone gets to keep his or her job.

“I think Suffolk is one of the localities that’s one of the more gerrymandered in the state,” Cannon said, speaking about General Assembly and Congressional districts. It frequently happens “anytime you’re near an urban population or you’re on the outskirts of the city or you have a heavy minority population.”

OneVirginia2021 advocates for redistricting reform and offers a number of different proposals to reform the process — everything from just creating better rules for legislators to follow to taking it out of their hands completely and giving it to an independent commission.

“If we tightened those rules up, almost no matter who’s doing the line-drawing, they would be forced into doing it better,” Cannon said. “The idea would be to get people less self-interested drawing the lines.”

The current process, he added, “is like a batter calling his own balls and strikes.”

Cannon said the organization advocates keeping counties, cities and towns together and making it illegal to draw a district to benefit an incumbent or a challenger.

A limitation on how spread out a district can be — for which there’s actually a mathematical formula, so it can be quantified, Cannon said — would also be beneficial.

Cannon said he hopes to gain at least 250 supporters in Suffolk and believes the documentary screening will be a good start.

“I think it’s going to be a great showing,” he said. “It’s a good conversation start on this issue that people might know some about but don’t know a lot about.

“Many people underestimate how nefarious the process really is.”

The screening and discussion will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at King’s Fork High School, 351 Kings Fork Road.