Ken Plum: De-gerrymandering, continued
Sorry, but this is yet another column on the continuing effort to de-gerrymander House of Delegates districts in Virginia as directed by the federal courts. In this instance it was the Republican Party who in the majority after the 2010 census drew district lines that were designed to keep them in the majority until the next census in 2020 when lines must be drawn again. They ran into trouble when to dilute the votes of African Americans who traditionally vote Democratic they packed them into eleven districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions. A panel of federal judges found the practice violated the constitutional rights of the individuals involved and ordered the districts to be redrawn. The Governor called the General Assembly into special session last week to carry out the court’s directive. The legislature went home without success after one day of effort.
Why is the Republican majority failing to do as the court directed? The reason is quite simple. If it took an unconstitutional drawing of district lines to maintain their majority in the House of Delegates, an undoing of those lines would likely take away their majority. Is the court favoring Democrats in what they are doing? No, the court is protecting the constitutional rights of individuals. The court does not take into account partisan outcomes. You simply cannot deny equal representation in the legislature of a class of people without running afoul of their constitutional protections.
When the court found Virginia’s Congressional districts to be unconstitutional several years ago, the remedy of that situation was new districts that resulted in the election of an additional African American congressman from the state that up to that point had only one. Both happen also to be Democrats.
The court has denied an appeal from the Republicans of their directive to resolve the unconstitutional districts. If the General Assembly fails to carry out the court’s mandate, the court will redraw the districts themselves. Presumably there would be special elections held right away in the new districts.
In the meantime, House Democrats have proposed a redrawing of the legislative lines to make the districts constitutional which unsurprisingly could result in the election of as many as five new Democrats. The authors of the new maps insist that they did what needed to be done to follow the court’s directive and not what would give them more seats. The day of the special session was spent with the Republicans picking apart the proposed map in an attempt to show that it was too partisan.
Republicans called the map hypocritical, and one of my Democratic colleagues, Delegate Steve Heretick, called it a “self-serving political power grab.” I draw two conclusions from the last several months: The court needs to take immediate remedial action to correct the constitutional problems with the current districts, and the General Assembly at its next legislative session must pass a constitutional amendment establishing a truly independent commission to do redistricting. The amendment would need to pass a second session of the General Assembly and a referendum of the people. Legislative bodies simply cannot rise above their own self-interests to do the job fairly.