Decisions on a New House Plan May Start Today

The most recent proposed House of Delegates plan drafted to comply with a federal court order, linked to more information on VPAP. Source: VPAP

The House of Delegates Privileges and Elections Committee meets this afternoon to consider several competing proposals for a new House of Delegates district map, all having proponents who claim they will satisfy demands from a federal court.

Setting aside the politics and hypocrisy on both sides, when I see the Virginia Public Access Project’s displays and analyses on these various proposals I just marvel at the way technology has changed this process and appreciate the way VPAP has presented it to us all.

The game was far simpler before this detailed GIS mapping technology, overlain with all the demographic and political data.  I will never forget staying up almost all night in 1991 to prepare a Senate plan with nothing but paper precinct lists and an Excel spreadsheet.

As previously noted, and this opinion won’t be shared by all, this has gotten out of hand.  The 2011 redistricting map was certainly a gerrymander, as they all are now, but it contained neither the intent nor the effect of racial discrimination.  It met the legal standard as understood at the time, passed with commendable bipartisan (and biracial) support and was cleared by the Justice Department.  Nobody stood on the floor of the General Assembly and screamed “Jim Crow!”

The people now claiming harm are seeking partisan advantage, nothing else.

If the federal courts now read the Voting Rights Act a bit differently the proper remedy is to set the rules clearly in time for the 2021 mapping process and election.   To tweak a couple of dozen districts (perhaps hundreds of precincts) for just one election cycle, and then change them again two years later, is a remedy that creates more harm than benefit.

I say this now with the added experience of working in a poll and dealing with voter confusion over where they should be.  Jumbling precinct lines causes harm.  Period.

But among the benefits to one side might be a quick change in control of the House of Delegates, so we go through this exercise.  With the publication now of two Republican-sponsored plans along with a highly-partisan Democratic plan the Democrats and Governor Northam can either accepts something that meets the new rules or reject them all and send the matter to a court-appointed special master.

Their problem is that the special master’s first step, I suspect, will be to review the plans considered by the special session, and if one of them does the trick, recommend it to the judges.  Almost 30 years ago, working for the then-minority caucus, we were drawing plans we knew would be voted down but we hoped would be attractive to a court seeking alternatives.

With this new plan sponsored by Delegate Chris Jones that outcome might be more likely.  I’m sure it has been refined with careful consideration of the court’s order, and it apparently has some Democratic endorsements.   The end of this game may be in sight.  The General Assembly should solve this, not the court.

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12 responses to “Decisions on a New House Plan May Start Today

  1. What would be fitting is for the ultimate plan to go to SCOTUS and a majority opinion by Justice Thomas strike down racial set-asides (racial gerrymandering) as violative of the Equal Protection Clause.

    If you allow racial gerrymandering and keep everything else non-gerrymandered, you automatically favor Democrats. Everything is even except for majority black districts means everything is not even.

    Of course, the Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda would think this approach is just right. Sig Heil Herr Hiatt!

  2. But what is “everything else” especially in the rural areas – if one presumes the urban areas are blue and will stay blue.

    What is a fair way to deal with rural (and suburban) Virginia – not only racially but “other” – which I’m less clear on what “other” is…

  3. https://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/government-politics/va-house-panel-backs-gop-redistricting-bill-on-party-line/article_34a63aff-1b87-552a-b0f6-e43df8d10a57.html

    Update – here’s the TD story on the meeting, where the Jones plan was reported to the floor with a party line vote. The Dems have decided they will take their chances with a special master, given the possible reward (all they need is one more seat) and the minimal cost (the Attorney General is now siding with the plaintiffs while the GOP is funding its own lawyers). I didn’t monitor the meeting as I was enthralled by the other and more important partisan warfare to the north. The next six weeks until Nov 6 may be the worst period in this country since the run-up to Sumter.

    • Indeed – up north – the idea that judges are not “political” was totally trashed!

      But I keep hearing this phrase “Special Master” as if he/she is a Democrat in disguise and will essentially gerrymander the districts to favor the Dems.

      I think it is more than possible for computer technology to be coded to do what the Constitution says and allocate boundaries on that basis.

      I actually agree with you that moving boundaries around – is disruptive but so is frequent re-drawing of them to suit politics… At some point if we actually do draw less-partisan/non-partisan boundaries – the tempo for change ought to slow down.

      But’s let’s also point out on the boundary issue – that a real complication is drawing Federal, State and Local boundaries for elections that don’t coincide.

      In other words the boundaries for Federal Congressional are not the same as for State Delegates nor for local Boards of Supervisors even though they all are supposedly based on one-man-one-vote and communities of interest.

      I’m not sure even with computers it’s possible to get more/better alignments… and we still will end up with what is known as “split precincts” which, by the way, seem to induce voting errors every election that are far more than what PLIF and others worry about – “illegal” voters.

      It might be useful in BR to have a post that explains how “Split Precincts” occur and how those precincts actually operate when they are “split” … it’s a big problem when boundary lines are re-drawn and frequently.

      • Once districts are gerrymandered to ensure the election of blacks, the map will favor Democrats unless districts can also be gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

      • Larry, a special master might indeed write a plan the Democrats still don’t like or the GOP might prefer. But they have nothing to lose by going that route and so much to gain it is a logical move on their part.

        Sometimes split precincts become two precincts, but sometimes the poll workers must keep track of two ballots, and try to hand the right one to voters based on address. That is the case with the state senate in my precinct, I think. Bad system, bad.

        • Steve – the thing is there are boundaries for EACH elected office from the local supervisors to the State Delegates to Congress and they do not always coincide and to this point the answer is NOT to have multiple “pure” precincts – the staffing load to recruit volunteers for would be quite large – so instead they try to limit the “split” precincts but it’s a mess to do manually – that’s why I would have computers do it.

          You still have to have some level of “order”… i.e. do you do the Congressional boundaries first then within them do the State and local?

          Let me also point out again – than when precinct boundaries change – that change automatically causes a mismatch of voters with their voting precincts… and causes a lot of the “bad” votes that some of these groups claim is “fraud”.

  4. I guess if you told a computer to create districts – and you gave it no race data and it did it according to compactness.. or communities of interests – again with no racial data – how that would inherently favor one party or the other – unless those elected – in the eyes of some constituencies did not feel they actually did represent them. That would be little different than other communities of interest – say retired military or seniors, or enviros… etc…

    The trick is to NOT encode that data in the computer program to start with… then if one still feels it favors one party over the other – then it’s an issue with that party with respect to particular constituencies.

    No?

  5. “Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, suggested that the competing bills considered by the committee demonstrated why the General Assembly shouldn’t make the decision.

    “It’s very difficult to do this when you’re asking people, ‘What do you want in your district?’” Sickles said after the meeting.”

    As is becoming increasingly common, the voice of politicians from NoVa constitute the only reliably honest commentary on these matters. Give or take Tricky Dick Saslaw and Janet “Big Bird” Howell of course.

    • I have a serious problem with redistricting decisions, as opposed to recommendations, being made by people who are not responsible to the voters. If voters think bad decisions were made, they can go after their senator or delegate. Or vice versa. But if some unelected people make bad decisions, say biased decisions, what is the recourse? And keep in mind that many of the people who could be appointed to a redistricting panel are the same types that sit on other institutional boards and advisory committees. Think of the people who sit on the college boards.

  6. Well, I don’t think it should be up to the elected to decide “who” is in their district. The Constitution says the “who” and also says they “elect” who will represent them.

    When we start letting the folks who are elected decide “who” will elect them – we’re in big trouble!

    • Larry –

      One of the reasons I enjoy reading Bacon’s Rebellion is that i can read a great diversity of opinion on several matters at once, given that those expressing those opinions here most often have something unique, informed and interesting to say.

      However, we now have you dominating the discussion of others, filing your comments after comments, sometimes four in a row. This pushes everyone else off the screen on the lower left, hiding them forever from public view. Then, doing this, you destroy the value of other peoples comments, and my and other people’s ability to enjoy them. Thus you also greatly devalue this blog by hogging it for yourself. And you harm other peoples willing to put out here comments of their own.

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