Gerrymandering alive and well in Virginia

Published 8:38 pm Saturday, February 18, 2017

By Kermit Hobbs Jr.

Lately it’s not unusual for me to read newspaper headlines and walk away, shaking my head in dismay. But the reaction I felt to last Wednesday morning’s report was more anger than bewilderment.

The story reported that the Elections Subcommittee of the Virginia House Privileges and Elections Committee voted to kill three bills that would have reformed the redistricting process in Virginia.

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The bills, sponsored by members of both political parties, were intended to stop politicians from drawing electoral districts in a way that would favor one party over the other. That process is called “gerrymandering.”

The Virginia Constitution requires that every 10 years, after the census, the legislators in power divide the state map into legislative districts of roughly equal population, for the following decade.

If it were that simple, there would be no problem.

The trouble is that the legislators configure the districts in such a way as to protect the interests of their own political party. It’s a classic example of conflict of interest, whether the party is Democrat or Republican. This explains the ridiculously convoluted districts that we have all seen.

Legislators configure the districts such that most of them are made up of voters who probably support their party. The districts that remain are designed to pack as many non-supporting voters in them as possible. Those districts, which are fewer in number, are given up to the opposing party.

It results in more elections won by the party in power, thereby keeping them in power longer. The fox is guarding the henhouse.

In other words, to use a popular phrase, the system is rigged.

Some years ago, there was a lot of talk about imposing term limits upon our elected officials as an effort to prevent political stagnation. For a time, I thought this idea was worth considering. However, I eventually decided it wasn’t such a good idea. I figured that if our elected officials weren’t doing their job, we could simply vote them out of office.

Gerrymandering is specifically intended to prevent that from happening. It is much more difficult for an opposition candidate to beat an incumbent in a district that is already stacked in favor of the incumbent. He/she very likely wouldn’t even try. The voters are the losers.

The three bills killed by the committee proposed that:

  • “No electoral district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring any political party, incumbent legislator or member of Congress, or other individual or entity.” (Bipartisan sponsors)
  • The legislature create an independent commission to redraw legislative and congressional districts after each census. (Bipartisan sponsors)
  • Virginia use an independent commission if a court declares a legislative or congressional district unlawful or unconstitutional. (Democrat sponsor.)

I find it particularly irritating that a sub-committee of seven people, including Suffolk’s own Chris Jones, would kill these bills and prevent them from coming to the floor of the House of Delegates. A topic of this importance needs to be debated in the open and given an up or down vote, and the voters should know where their own delegates stand.

I’m sure the opposing legislators will explain why they disapprove of these common sense ideas. However, I’ll be surprised if they deny that gerrymandering is a serious problem that needs to be solved. If I’m right and they admit that it is a problem, then the burden is clearly upon them to join their fellow legislators in solving it.

Virginia voters deserve no less.

Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at