A bipartisan coalition launched a multi-year campaign last week to wrench the process of redrawing Virginia’s legislative district boundaries from the hands of whatever party happens to be in power.
Instead, the job of redistricting after every U.S. census to reflect population shifts would go to a neutral body, a move that could resurrect something missing in many elections of today — competition.
Through the decades, more districts have become so lopsidedly in favor of one party or the other that incumbents ease, unopposed, into office. .
A Christopher Newport University’s Watson Center for Public Policy survey released Feb. 3 found that Virginians believed the state’s method of redrawing district boundaries is the least fair of three possible ways redistricting can happen. More than half favored amending the state constitution to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission..
Which happens to be the direction the coalition, One Virginia 2021: Virginians for Fair Redistricting, is leaning. The group, founded by the University of Virginia Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership’s Leigh Middleditch, has the backing of civic and business powerhouses statewide, including Richmond’s Jim Ukrop..
Style Weekly spoke with the chairwoman of the group’s steering committee, Shannon Valentine, a former state delegate from Lynchburg.
Style: We have 100 seats in the House of Delegates and 40 in the Senate. How many would you consider competitive?
Valentine: In the House, nearly three-quarters are not contested. Of those contested, less than a dozen have an outcome that is even in doubt. In fact, in the last election only one seat changed hands in the House.
What are the ramifications of that?
Redistricting is the foundation for how we are governed. When citizens look at Washington or their state legislatures and see gridlock, inflammatory legislation, or what they describe as dysfunction, the partisan districts created by redistricting are one of the underlying reasons. In fact, Virginia’s districts have been described as hyper-polarized, which only discourages debate or compromise. The inability or the unwillingness to work on real solutions to serious issues is the result that concerns citizens the most.
Redistricting has been described as elected representatives choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their elected representatives.
Yes. The League of Women Voters has been saying for years that voters should be choosing their legislators, not legislators choosing their voters. This has been described by many as turning democracy on its head.
How do you get voters interested in this? Redistricting is complicated, the process is not transparent and voter turnout is often low in nonpresidential election years.
In nonpresidential elections, in many cases there is only one name on the ballot. Even when an incumbent has a challenger, there are very few debates or forums, which may be because there’s little doubt of the outcome of the race. I think voters would turn out if they were part of an election that has honest debate in which legislators are explaining and defending their decisions, and there were competition.
The whole idea is to create a process that is open and transparent, that not only welcomes public participation, but also honors it. When you explain the process to citizens and students, they get it very easily. This is evident when you look at the maps presented by Gov. [Bob] McDonnell’s Redistricting Advisory Commission, as well at the maps drawn in the college and university competition during the 2010 census.
You are asking sitting lawmakers to cede power. The party in power will draw maps to protect incumbency.
Our focus is not about taking power from one party and placing it in the hands of another party. The purpose is to put the power exactly where it belongs, with the citizens of Virginia. Yes, that is our challenge. But in the end, decisions should be based on what is best for Virginia.
You mentioned that every governor going back to George Allen has supported the idea of bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting. So, too, have numerous current and former lawmakers and voters don’t think the process is fair — so why has it not happened?
Let me tell you why I think this effort is different than past efforts. With previous redistricting efforts, the focus has been on a single year, on a single legislative session. We now understand it will take several years to accomplish. We are starting at 2014. The census is not until 2020 and the new map will be voted upon in 2021. We’ve never had this commitment to work on this over multi-years. And secondly, this is a grass-roots effort. The response has been overwhelming. There are business leaders, members of chambers of commerce, professors, teachers, students, local and state government officials who are getting behind this because they understand that what’s at stake is how we are governed.
So what will it take to create a bipartisan redistricting commission?
There are several avenues for creating a commission, but only one that ensures enforcement: a constitutional amendment.
What are the immediate, next steps?
We’re finalizing our incorporation. We are creating a statewide network. We have launched our communications team, and our website [OneVirginia2021.org]. We’re putting together a presentation that we can take on the road. We are organizing fundraising. We have a committee headed by a retired staff attorney for the Supreme Court who is working with us to analyze the process within other states. We have the commitment. We have the energy. Now, we need the structure to make it work.