Guest Column

John Goolrick



Gerrymander Jeremiads

A hardy perennial in Virginia politics is the ritualistic denunciation of gerrymandering. Sure, redistricting is unfair. But none of the alternatives looks any better.


My 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 demise.

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 process

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 court.

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 consecutive years.

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 tradition."

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






















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John Goolrick covered state politics for nearly 30 years. Since then he has worked as an aide to four members of Congress--Rep. French Slaughter, Rep. George Allen, Rep. Herbert Bateman and now Rep. Jo Ann Davis. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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