Ken Plum: Visit to a sausage factory

virginia state capitol
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The quotation, “Laws are like sausages, better not to see them being made,” has been attributed to several different writers and scholars over the years. Regardless of who said it first, that person had obviously observed law making and sausage making up close. Because of its messiness, there has been a tendency on the part of legislators to do the work behind closed doors without the public being able to see the trade-offs, the bloodletting, and the dealmaking that is so much a part of the legislative compromise inherent in passing complex legislation.

At no time has the reference to legislative sausage making been more relevant than in the constitutionally-mandated requirement that a census be conducted every decade and that the results of the counting of all the people be used to draw legislative districts that adhere to the Baker v Carr Supreme Court ruling of one person, one vote. Although the case was not decided until 1962, the abuses that occurred with the malapportionment of legislative bodies are as old as the republic.

In his definitive book on the subject, Gerrymanders: How Redistricting Has Protected Slavery, White Supremacy, and Partisan Minorities in Virginia, (University of Virginia Press, 2019), historian Brent Tarter focuses on Virginia’s long history of gerrymandering. Tarter exposes practices going back to nineteenth century and colonial times and explains how they protected landowners’ and slave owners’ interests. The consequences of redistricting and reapportionment in modern Virginia clearly thwarted the will of the majority and held the state back in many regards.

I was in the House of Delegates in the majority party in some instances and in the minority in others for the redistricting of 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, before the redistricting that is currently taking place. In all those redistricting processes prior to the one underway, the decision making took place behind closed doors without public involvement. During those stressful events in which the future control of the legislature for the next decade was decided by the majority party, there were deliberate decisions to put legislators of the minority party in the same district to make them run against each other or to have one retire. There was much gnashing of teeth and figuratively bloody struggles as power was divided up. The absolute assertion of power of one group of politicians over another in rooms outside public view was at times horrifying. Both Democrats and Republicans were equally guilty. In almost every instance the action was appealed to the courts that often overturned the work of the legislature for its lack of equal protection of everyone.

The voters took charge of the process with the approval last year of an amendment to establish a commission to do the work of drawing legislative boundary lines. The major difference between the past way of doing redistricting is that the process, as complex and messy as it may be, is open to public view in every instance. There will be complaints as there always are that there are winners and losers as there always are. What will be missing are the domination of one party over another and strict partisanship as the guiding principle for the work that is being done. The result I believe when the grinding and stuffing carried out by the commission is done will be a better “sausage” with which to govern the Commonwealth.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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