Although the drawing of legislative district lines is supposed to take place each decade after the federal census, the controversy over where and how lines are drawn keeps the issue alive every year. Most recently a federal court declared the current Congressional district lines in Virginia invalid because the way the lines are drawn discriminates against minorities being able to get elected. Essentially the black population is packed into one district. The 2015 session of the General Assembly will have to redraw the lines. Just last week about a dozen black citizens brought suit against the current House of Delegates districts contending that they are drawn in a way that discriminates against minorities.
The purpose of the redistricting process is to ensure that persons are equally represented in the legislature. As population shifts with some areas growing and others declining, district lines are redrawn based on the federal census. A numeric equality of the numbers of persons in a district is achieved and has been enforced by the federal courts to be within a couple of percentage points. But going back to the earliest years of our republic there has been recognition that the way in which lines are drawn can determine the likely outcome of an election in a district. In 1812 Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a redistricting bill so favorable to his political party that the newspapers pointed out that one of the districts looked like a salamander, hence the term “gerrymandering.”
There is no doubt that both parties have taken part in gerrymandering districts to their political advantage. The party in power attempts to continue its dominance by drawing lines that are likely to elect more of their party members to the legislature. The result in Virginia and in other states is to reduce the number of contested elections. Candidates are less likely to run in a district where the numbers are stacked against them. Elected officials who represent these “safe” seats may be less responsive to constituents’ concerns and adhere to stronger political party dictates. The real electoral contests in these districts tend to be in the primaries selecting candidates. Some of the districts heavily stacked with Republicans in Virginia are seeing increased challenges from Tea Party activists in primaries. Even the Speaker of the House has a Tea Party challenger in a primary this year.
Just last month a panel appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe to look at ethics issues in state government recommended that Virginia establish an independent redistricting commission to draw legislative district lines. Such commissions have proven effective in reducing political influences in how district lines are drawn. This is not a new idea. In 1982 I introduced a bill to establish an independent redistricting commission and have reintroduced the bill many times since then. While it was rejected by Democrats when they were in the majority and by the Republicans now that they control the majority, it is the right thing to do. As some advocates maintain, citizens should elect their representatives, not the representatives selecting their constituents.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.