hardy perennial in Virginia politics is the
ritualistic denunciation of gerrymandering. Sure,
redistricting is unfair. But none of the
alternatives looks any better.
hometown paper, despite its philosophical
permutations over the years, has constantly railed
editorially about changing Virginia's system of
redistricting. And in response I have always
called their proposals half-baked.
As usual this year in the state legislature, bills
were introduced to change the redistricting
process and, as usual, they went to a peaceful
It would take thousands of words of deathless
prose to describe all the various ways that have
been advanced to "reform" the
redistricting process. Choosing special
commissions, letting retired state and federal
judges do it, take a mixture of legislators and
citizens, and so forth and so on.
Over the years in my roles as a political reporter
and congressional aide I think I have become at
least a semi-expert on the Virginia redistricting
process. And I conclude that it ain't broke, so
don't fix it.
Time was back when I first started covering state
politics the sky was the limit when it came to
gerrymandering. There was no one man-one vote
decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, no ruling
that districts must be reasonably compact.
In those days the ruling Byrd Democrats were under
little judicial restraint, so when the decennial
redistricting time came, they gathered in the
Hotel Richmond, sipped a little bourbon and
branch water and marked up the map so that
continued Democratic control of the General
Assembly and House of Representatives delegation
would be assured.
Republicans didn't much like it, but theirs in
bygone days were voices in the wilderness. As time
went by and court edicts said all districts should
have pretty much the same number of people as all
others, the Democrats had to get a bit more
innovative when it came to reapportionment,
particularly since Republicans were steadily
gaining strength in the state.
Now that Republicans are firmly in control of both
the state legislature and congressional
delegation, it is mainly Democrats who are crying
out for something that will take the power of
redistricting from the hands of the Republican
legislative majority in Richmond. As the saying
goes, turn about is fair play.
But the editorial arguments of my local paper are
specious. Unelected Judges across the nation too
often have usurped the authority of legislative
branches and made law instead of just interpreting
it. Historically, reapportionment has been a
legislative and not a quasi-legislative or judicial
Not that the judicial branch is without voice in
legislative decisions relating to redistricting.
As a result of various high court decisions,
courts have played an increasingly major role in
state redistricting matters. Indeed, every
Virginia redistricting since the one man-one vote
ruling has been challenged in some manner in
Back in 1981, for example, Democrats kept some
multi-member House of Delegates districts. A
federal court ruled that this violated the concept
of one man-one vote and, as a result, elections
for House of Delegates seats had to be held three
The argument of some, including my local editors,
that changing the redistricting process would make
it less likely to face legal challenge, is
questionable. It would more than likely lead to
even more court challenges.
Admittedly redistricting is still a political
process, though considerably less than it used to
be. Leaving aside Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner,
an aberration, Virginia is heavily Republican, so
it stands to reason it should have a majority both
at the state legislative and congressional levels.
Those who think some gimmickry such as retired
judges drawing districts would make a more level
playing field apparently feel that every district
could somehow be drawn to be competitive. These
are the kind who undoubtedly would like to change
things around so the Washington Nationals could
win as many games as The New York Yankees.
Back in the 1990s there was a prevalent feeling
that if majority black districts could be created,
the Civil Rights Act would require it. Therefore
in Virginia in the 1991 redistricting several
black majority House and State Senate districts
were created as well as the 3rd District, the so
called "Bobby Scott" district.
Creation of the Scott district required putting a
number of blacks formerly in the 1st, 2nd, 4th and
7th Districts into the 3rd District. This tended
to boost Republican voting strength in the other
congressional districts. The same was true in a
number of state legislative districts.
My hometown paper in its most recent editorial
breathlessly endorsed California Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger's support of redistricting
reform while failing to point out Democrats
control the California legislature. The editorial
said, "The voluntary surrender of political
power is a rarity. But so was 1776. ... It's time
for legislators in the cradle of freedom to set a
date to terminate our most undemocratic political
Maybe I am missing something, but I cannot recall
reading any history book about the British
voluntarily surrendering political power in 1776
or thereafter. And, as for an undemocratic
political tradition, what could be more democratic
than those elected by voters deciding political
districting rather than those who have not gone
before the electorate to seek votes?
February 14, 2005