Redistricting, Ethics Panel Pushes Ahead

seal_virginiaBy Peter Galuszka

Against strong chances that their efforts will be killed in the self-serving General Assembly, a panel is pushing ahead with badly needed reforms in government ethics and redistricting.

The bipartisan Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government wants to change the state constitution to create and independent redistricting commission tasked with remaking voting districts without regard to an election’s outcome.

Headed by Republican former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Democrat former U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, the group proposes that the redistricting commission be made up of five members. One each would be chosen by the House of Delegates speaker and minority leader and the same in the Senate. The four people would choose a fifth one and if they can’t decide, the state’s chief justice of the state Supreme Court would make the decision.

The idea is coming forward after two big events. One is the first-time ever conviction of a former or sitting governor in the state on corruption charges. The other was a federal court decision in October that the lines of the 3rd Congressional District were drawn in an unconstitutional way by packing in African-Americans. Doing so ensured victories by black politicians while diluted the black vote in neighboring ones.

The state constitution requires state and federal districts to be redrawn every 10 years to changes in settlement patterns. It has also been complicated by the Voting Rights Act, a 1960s-era vehicle that tried to correct the wrongs of white-dominated Southern states erecting districts so black votes were kept away.

At the moment very few of the races of other General Assembly are competitive. They are designed to keep incumbents in power which, in most rural districts, are Republicans. Thus, the real clash of ideas comes from a very tiny margin of voters and activists at Republican primaries that are often not representative of mainstream thinking.

Likewise, Virginia badly needs to address its “anything goes” policies regarding campaign donations and accepting gifts. This is a big reason why Robert F. McDonnell got into such big trouble with his corruption conviction that could put him in jail for a decade or more. Gov. Terry McAuliffe created the Bolling-Boucher commission just after McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted in a federal court in Richmond.

These reforms are absolutely necessary. If the General Assembly stubbornly deep-sixes the redistricting plan, someone else will have to come in. A federal judge has given the state until April 15 to redraw the 3rd district or the feds will do it.

And, as the McDonnell case shows, if Virginia goes over the top with ethics violations, the feds will do it, too. Underlining that point, the U.S. Probation Office is recommending double the usual prison time for McDonnell. Analysts say it is to make the statement crystal clear.

But, this is Virginia, unfortunately. Instead of dealing head-on with serious ethics problems, the ruling elite is mounting a campaign to give McDonnell time in community service instead of behind bars. Its proponents include the usual players like House Speaker Bill Howell and Tom Farrell of the utility Dominion.

Their game is to keep the status quo for as long as they can. Too bad times are changing, but the longer they stall, the more they hurt the people of Virginia.

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6 responses to “Redistricting, Ethics Panel Pushes Ahead

  1. I totally agree — redistricting reform is desperately needed. Ethics reform, too.

    I would say this, though, as long as state/local government exercises as much power over the economy as it does (transportation, land use, utilities, professional licensing, environmental regulations, health care, etc.) vested interests will find ways to influence the public policy process. You can plug one hole, and two more will appear. Still, that’s no reason not to prevent the most egregious abuses. Virginia is way overdue for reform.

  2. Does the vaunted “Virginia Way” mean anything positive any longer? The State is about to undergo a lot of hand-wringing on Sentencing Day next month; it would help if there were specific redistricting recommendations from the Commission out there by then to focus on. And the polarization of political dialog due to the gerrymandering of ‘safe’ election districts, not to mention the racial politics, certainly ought to be something those recommendations address.

  3. The Iowa Plan for redistricting might be a good model. The commission should prepare as many as three plans seriatim. The first plan goes to the GA. If it votes to accept it, redistricting is over. If the GA rejects the first plan, a second plan is proposed and goes to the GA. As many as three plans can be presented. If all are rejected, redistricting goes back to the GA as is done today. This approach gives the GA the ability to reject partisan redistricting plans that are proposed as neutral. The proposed structure of the redistricting panel should also prevent the fraudulent presentation of a partisan plan as nonpartisan. To me, it’s worse to pretend something is nonpartisan when it is not, than to present partisan plans openly.

    Before we walk down this road, however, the issue of the Voting Rights Act needs to be discussed openly. So long as federal law requires the creation of racial/ethnic minority majority districts, it will be practically impossible not to create conservative majority districts. You cannot consider race/ethnicity and not consider it at the same time. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it seems extremely corrupt to follow the VRA and also try to operate nonpartisan redistricting as if the VRA was not there.

    Another issue of concern is incumbent protection. Today, it’s done openly, with the twist that the majority party will not likely protect the minority party’s incumbents to the same degree. But such are the spoils of war and elections. What is vile, in my mind, is to use a professed neutral process that results in the shafting of one party or the other. This is one reason why I could support an Iowa Plan for Virginia. The shafted Party has a chance to reject the Plan it does not like.

    I think we need a lot of discussion and debate before we make changes so that everyone knows the impact of change.

  4. The existing problem is that if “safe” districts are drawn – for both parties – and they are – there is no real way to hold the elected accountable unless the majority party supporters want to do that.

    Even then – if you go around Virginia looking for – ethics reform – based on what happened to the McDonnells – the GOP districts elected are portraying the conviction as a partisan vendetta…. thus no real need for ethics reform – more of a need for a commission to look into the potential partisan rulings of judges…

    I would submit that the proper goal of a re-districting is the opposite of safe districts – districts that can and will “swing” depending on the issue – and that will go a long way towards making the elected pay more attention to issues and not feel more accountable to the party rulers in Richmond than their constituents.

    Virginia is a joke when it comes to the Democratic process. The “fix” is in – across the board.

    Elected in Richmond – and Washington fear their own political party “enforcers” than they do the people who elect them.

    All this blather about the founding fathers.. they’d be rolling in their graves if they could see how the democratic process actually works these days.

    the voters are pawns… gullible pawns that can and will swallow the most obvious propaganda and talking points.. as long as it sounds “plausible”.

    and money is an even worse joke. The manipulators just contribute to a PAC were the money gets thoroughly co-mingled with all other contributions – and other the other end -magically – the money ends up going exactly where intended – except it’s no longer tied to the donor – just the PAC.

    We not only tolerate this in Virginia – we basically celebrate it by claiming that “disclosure” makes up for the other flaws.. like we actually know where the money came from when it goes from a PAC to a candidate..

    like I said – they ought to change the definition of Clueless RUBE in the dictionary to Virginia Voter. You’ve got folks living in rural Virginia who have no health insurance – none – and they rely on charity and good luck – and bad luck and yet the vote FOR the yahoos in Richmond who could provide them with a health clinic for not additional taxes – and in fact net revenues to the State…billions.. and these folks in rural red Va march to the polls to vote for their favorite GOP hypocrite… none the wiser.

    • Let me play devil’s advocate. How many people want competitive districts that pose a serious risk/chance a candidate of the other party could win? I’m sure there are some independents that do. But most of the Ds and Rs I know simply don’t want the other side to represent them, beyond a “throw-the-bum-out” election. I think many people prefer living in a district where most of their neighbors have similar political views.

      • TMT – doesn’t that violate the spirit of Democracy? and doesn’t it assure there will be safe incumbents who will pay more attention to party leaders than voters?

        and elections will continue to focus on fewer and fewer genuine competitive contests – in the end – more gridlock in Congress.. fewer decisions on the tougher issues like immigration?

        this is your preferred path?

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