A federal court found Virginia’s congressional redistricting to be unconstitutional because it diluted the strength of minorities in elections. Essentially the redistricting of 2011 packed black voters from Richmond to Norfolk in a single congressional district ensuring the probable election of one black representative while reducing the likelihood of another one being elected. The court rules on the fairness of districts related to their being numerically equal in size and in their treatment of classes of voters, but it does not take into account partisan advantages or disadvantages.
The federal court set a September 1 deadline for new district lines to be drawn by the General Assembly. The Assembly was unwilling or unable to draw new lines at least in part because any new map is likely to increase the Democrats’ chances of winning more than the three of eleven congressional seats they currently hold. A special session called by Governor McAuliffe to take up the issue concluded without taking action. A proposal drawn up by the Democratic minority to address the issue of fair racial representation in the Tidewater and Northern Virginia areas was not considered by the House or Senate. Based on prior voting behavior by the people in these new districts, there would likely have been five Republican, five Democrat, and one swing district. Such an outcome is reflective of how the state has been voting in statewide contests.
This is not the first time Virginia has run afoul of federal courts on the issue of redistricting. As the state grows in size with developing metropolitan areas, those who controlled the legislature have been reluctant to give up their power to the newly emerging suburban and urban areas. Virginia was one of the states in the 1964 Baker v Carr decision establishing the principle of one man, one vote. After the 1981 census the Supreme Court threw out the redistricting three times before the legislature got it right. With the changing of district lines I had to run for office in 1981, 1982, and 1983. The same thing could happen again this year. The same rationale that makes the congressional districts unfair applies to the House of Delegates districts that are now being challenged in federal court. House members could have to run three years in a row just as in the early 80s if the case is successful. House of Delegates elections in 2016 in particular could be interesting as this is a presidential election year with greater voter participation.
It is human nature that political parties in power try to maintain their majorities through gerrymandering districts to their advantage. I first introduced a bill in 1982 that would have given the task over to an independent commission. Neither Democratic nor Republican majorities have been willing to pass it. Several states have such a commission, and I have continued to re-introduce the bill. I believe it is the only way to get fair, nonpartisan redistricting done. I support OneVirginia (onevirginia2021.org), a group that is working for this kind of reform that needs to be put into place right away.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.