The Odds of Redistricting Reform: Slim to None


The general public in Virginia is overwhelmingly opposed to the current arrangement for redrawing legislative districts every year, in which lawmakers select their own constituencies and perpetuate their hold on power. The occasional outbreaks of reform-mindedness haven’t gotten far, however. It is exceedingly rare for any political party, either Democratic or Republican, to voluntarily cede control over a process that could easily result in a loss of power.

In a newly published essay in The Virginia News Letter, Benjamin M. Harris and Stephen J. Farnsworth explore successful efforts to achieve bipartisan redistricting reform in Iowa, Arizona and California. The authors are not optimistic about the prospects.

The road ahead for the reform movement in Virginia is more challenging than it was in California and Arizona, which used voter referendum measures to enact and refine their systems. Citizen referenda by petition are not authorized by the Virginia Constitution. Instead, the state would need the General Assembly’s approval to enact reform. … Any long-lasting changes to Virginia’s redistricting system must be passed through constitutional amendment. Short of a constitutional amendment, the only option would be for lawmakers to choose to consult with outside line-drawing experts in a nonbinding way. This of course is not something they have shown much interest in doing in the past. …

While the lawmakers in Iowa did take away the redistricting power from themselves, more or less (they do retain the final say over the lines drawn by nonpartisan staff), the current political environment in Virginia also does not seem hospitable to this outcome. For decades, Virginia politicians have unabashedly and openly engaged in gerrymandering. … To make matters worse for the prospects for reform, Richmond in recent years has rapidly descended into the swamp of deep polarization that afflicts the nations’ capital. …

The obstacles are greater in Virginia, as lawmakers who control the contours of their own districts’ borders will not give up that authority lightly.


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19 responses to “The Odds of Redistricting Reform: Slim to None”

  1. larryg Avatar

    Here’s the funny thing. One would think one of the things the Tea Party and folks like Elena Siddall and Dave Brat would have at the top of their agenda – would be a Constitutional Amendment to provide Virginians with the right to initiate referenda.

    What would be a more powerful strike for freedom and self-determination?

    instead – the Tea Party is just some little small thinking anti-govt movement. Why not advocate for a real ability to change the “Virginia Way”?

    Why not make that the litmus test for running primary opponents against incumbents?

    I’d personally vote for the most virulent right wing whacko-bird if they made the right to initiate referenda their primary plank… (then use that power of referenda to get rid of them later).


    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “Here’s the funny thing. One would think one of the things the Tea Party and folks like Elena Siddall and Dave Brat would have at the top of their agenda – would be a Constitutional Amendment to provide Virginians with the right to initiate referenda.”

      Bravo, LarryG! You would think that the Tea Party would want citizen initiated referenda in their quest to make politicians accountable to the people. They should also want non-partisan redistricting and term limits.

      My guess? The won’t push for any of these.

      1. larryg Avatar

        re: ” My guess? The won’t push for any of these.”

        inexplicable to me.

        unless of course, they’re really not interested in voters holding government accountable.

        Hell. I might support the Tea Party if that was their agenda – and they were willing to abide by the verdict of the voters….

        that’s what the founding fathers wanted… and in my view – what we are lacking and what frustrates the hell out of many folks now days.

        I’m NOT in favor of California-type initiatives. I don’t subscribe to the idea that just any whacko idea can get onto the ballot with 2% of signatures. I’d like to see a serious number of signatures to get something on the ballot and that ought to be a clear warning to the legislators on things like the MedicAid Expansion.

        If the folks in RoVa vote against the expansion – so be it – I’ll accept the verdict of the voters – any day over these fools in Richmond.

  2. Ghost of Ted Dalton Avatar
    Ghost of Ted Dalton

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that partisan redistricting and legislative selection of judges are 2 issues on which reasonable minds agree need to be reformed.

    IMO, NoVa has been neutered for 14 years thanks to partisan redistricting. The NY Times recently ran an article that described Virginia as a purple/blue state with red state laws. I think that’s accurate. I think it’s due to partisan redistricting. If you talk to people, the vast majority of Virginians are far more liberal than what is reflected in the General Assembly.

    As for judges, isn’t Virginia the only state in the union that leaves it completely up to the legislature? I prefer a system in which a nonpartisan commission is appointed. The commission selects 3 candidates for every judicial opening. The Governor appoints from those 3 names. Every 4 years, the voters have a vote to retain the judge. If the voters choose not to retain the judge, the process starts over for the vacancy.

    1. larryg Avatar

      Virginia’s settlement and initial governance was based on the English practice of administering colonies.. – around the world.

      The “Virginia Way” basically continues the idea that the “educated” know what is best for Virginia – which is a real stretch now days with our current VA GA but rest assured – the “Virginia Way” is still very much the way the state is operated.

  3. Breckinridge Avatar

    The General Assembly is not going to surrender the power to draw districts. The General Assembly might consider initiative and referendum again — not a new issue — but the same forces that have killed it in the past will do so again. The best reform one could hope for in Virginia is a constitutional amendment that would require the districts drawn to meet certain compactness and contiguity rules, to show some preference for existing political subdivisions. But remember, some of the most egregiously gerrymandered districts are all but mandated by the Voting Rights Act as the various minority-majority precincts are stitched together to produce 65-75 percent minority voting age populations. Once those districts are drawn, with their byzantine borders, the districts that surround them take on the same character. But I don’t hear complaints about them, do I? In fact, just question that whole process and the “R” word starts to fly and I’m not talking “Republican.”

    As to judges, there should be a commission to review qualifications and in most cases the Bar does make recommendations which are looked at. I don’t think the judicial process is that badly flawed. The election of judges would be a tragedy — campaign contributions? Really? You want to go down that road?

    1. larryg Avatar

      you have a good point about the voting rights act.

      If you car draw districts to favor one group on race – you can do the same for political party.

      when you combine that with rules designed to make it harder, not easier to vote and money from Corporations… well you have a problem.

      in terms of elections themselves.

      Do you elect your Sheriff and County Attorney and Commissioner of the Taxes?

      the right to initiate referenda is more powerful than all these other things and you can see a clear difference between states that have it and states that don’t.

      we want a system – where incumbents can be thrown out without having to find an opponent.

      we want a system where voters can push back on laws and regulations they consider unfair.

      we want a system where legislators have someone looking over their shoulder – all the time with the clear threat that if the make a bad law – it’s going to be overturned and they’re going to be thrown out.

      I support DJ’s idea of a two term Gov and if I were King – I’d make the BOS term of office no longer than a House of Delegate guy and I’d allow them to be recalled with a 60% petition.

      In other words, I actually believe in the ability of the electorate to truly participate – but only with a high bar – there has to be 40% of the electorate to get the thing on a ballot and a 2/3 vote to prevail.

      1. None of the black members of the HoD objected to the redistricting plan. The GOP leadership asked them what they would like for districts and they largely gave them what they wanted.

        Virginia law already requires compact districts and generally prohibits splitting communities. But the VRA trumps it.

        1. larryg Avatar

          TMT – are you saying the VRA was not needed, that blacks were not harmed by Virginia voting policies?

          I’d admit the VRA was wrong-headed but given the times – Virginia had no intention of making things right for blacks and required something to be imposed on them.

          Now that we did that – years later – we say that blacks were fine with it?

          I think they were fine that some kind of relief was granted and did not really think too much of downstream consequences.

          but you seem to believe that if if something was done in an effort to help and turned out bad – that it’s fine to continue the bad…


          what the VRA recognized was that blacks would be a minority in most places because of the way that voting districts were drawn originally – to insure they’d not have a majority – and thus have no representation in the GA.

          In looking back -I’m not sure – even knowing what we know now – what other remedies were available to blacks since they had been systematically kept from voting – for decades no matter the voting district.

          surely you don’t defend those practices…. or attempts to rectify the wrong treatment – even if it turned out to have, what’s turned out to be, seriously unintended consequences.

          Even today – there are still concerns about rolling back the VRA.

          but all of this essentially boils down to – whether or not you want to go forward – doing the right thing – not make excuses for bad past choices or worse justify bad historical practices.

          1. Larry, I said what I said. The VRA trumps state law. Following the VRA results in districts that are safe for minority candidates. During the most recent redistricting, the HOD created districts that were safe for black incumbents. The plan was reviewed by the feds and the blacks in the HOD did not object. The Ds in the Senate created a majority of safe D districts. The Rs in the House created a majority of safe R districts. The feds approved the plan. That’s all I’m saying about the VRA and the most recent redistricting.

            I don’t know what redistricting would have looked like without the VRA. I suspect (hell, I know) both parties would have still gerrymandered their districts, which may well have resulted in some safe black districts anyway. But I don’t know and it doesn’t matter since the VRA is the law.

          2. larryg Avatar

            basically you feel that gerrymandering occurs independent of the VRA but VRA makes them make accommodations for black voting.

            but if VRA goes away -the gerrymandering would continue and whatever happened to black voting would – just happen.

            With the VRA itself – what more would blacks want or what objections would they have to current?

          3. Larry, gerrymandering will occur so long as their are political parties. And the courts have upheld the ability of politicians to design districts for political purposes.

            If the VRA were gone, I think we’d still see some temporary alliances between the GOP and black Democrats to agree on plans that advance both their interests in having safe districts.

  4. Breckinridge Avatar

    The compactness and contiguity language in the VA Constitution was the basis of a court case back in the 90s and the court punted. The provision could be strengthened. But you are right that the VRA will always prevail.

    No question that the Virginia districts before the 1991 plan, and especially the use of multi-member districts, did everything possible to dilute the African American vote. And there is no question Virginia had a long history of racial pattern voting. Black votes were cracked, stacked and packed in the 1981 map and the 1991 map was the first to maximize their membership in both the Senate and the House. In the case of the House it took the first plan being rejected by DOJ. It is also no coincidence that the 1991 election then laid the groundwork for Republican control of both chambers, which was solid in time to draw the 2001 plan. So gerrymandering is the key to GOP control, but it is in many cases legally-demanded gerrymandering.

    Given Virginia’s history, the Voting Rights Act was crucial to changing the pattern. But it is a fair question whether it remains as necessary. The election of Doug Wilder and the success of President Obama twice in Virginia are strong arguments that the environment in 2014 is not the same as in 1914 or 1954 or 1964. And if the Democrats ever want to control the House of Delegates again, revisiting those districts where they pack in so many of their base voters as to dilute their vote in the other 85 districts is the first step….I love the little ironies of history and the VRA has provided several.

    Initiative and referendum? Nope, nope, nope. Do not want to start down that road.

    1. larryg Avatar

      with the perception that voter suppression is ongoing – the environment for phasing out VRA is effectively poisoned.

      A compromise would be to get rid of VRA in exchange for easier ways to vote (with reasonable ID requirements). I’m not in favor of folks voting who have not yet registered… but once they register and have a card – they should be able to vote – easily. That would be a compromise.

    2. Ghost of Ted Dalton Avatar
      Ghost of Ted Dalton

      Good point about the Court punting on compactness.

      As to referendums, I agree….absolutely not.

      I support retention votes for judges, not elections. I agree that straight up elections are a bad idea for the judiciary. However, I think the retention system has worked well in other states.

  5. Breckinridge Avatar

    Reasonable? I’m sorry, but I’m not that offended by asking voters for ID, as long as various forms are accepted, including perhaps an affidavit from an election official who knows the individual (an amendment that should be allowed). I’ve carried the voter card in my wallet for decades, along with a driver’s license, a work ID card, lots of things. That is not the equivalent of a poll tax or the literacy testing that was a malicious, pernicious impediment to voting. Nor is it unreasonable to require voters to register in advance rather than just showing up on election day. I love it when people stand on a soapbox and say there is no voter fraud at all — well, even in my lifetime it was common in parts of Virginia and we all know how LBJ won that Senate seat….

    1. larryg Avatar

      I’m not opposed to ID, I support it – but the election officials have a duty to reach out BEFORE the election to the folks who are caught up in rules.

      we can have mobile DMVs .. .why not mobile voter ID?

      I too carry my ID in my wallet… but to get it – I did have to go by the registrar’s office – which is only open during the day and not on weekends.

      I totally support strict ID – but we have a responsibility to make the process of obtaining it – easy – with a proper outreach program.

      when you say voter fraud Breckinridge – look at the numbers.

      what we have going on is 1. – a claim that it’s much more widespread than there is evidence to support the claim and 2. – we’re using that excuse to make it HARDER to get the ID than it should be.

      that’s a sneaky way to discourage voting.

      we should have a complete voter id process that uses mail, internet, mobile registering as well as evening and weekend registration – and we should allow voting in the evening and on weekends for people who do not have flexibility in their work hours.

      In other words – we should encourage voting – not make sneaky excuses ….for not enabling more voting.

      what we’re doing right now smells a little like what we used to do to suppress the vote. The process should be scrupulous – both in the requirement for ID as well as the ability to get an ID – and vote.

      you should support that guy. we should send a strong message to those who want to play sneaky voter suppression that it’s totally unacceptable no matter the “fear” of faux fraud.

      1. Last year, while moving my son into his dorm at ODU, I heard some Democratic Party volunteers urging students to register in Norfolk and vote for McAuliffe. A couple of students replied they didn’t live in Norfolk or even in Virginia. No problem says the Obamaites, its OK to vote in two jurisdictions. No it’s not.

        1. larryg Avatar

          voting twice.. nope..

          I totally support strict voting rules – but we need to make it easier to vote -not harder.

          re: elected judges

          can someone explain why it’s okay to have other elected Constitutional officers like Commonwealth Attorney’s and Sheriffs but not judges?

          just curious about the logic..

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