Could Rampant Gerrymandering Face a Real Foe in Virginia? We Have 7 Years to Find Out.

A bipartisan group of Virginians is hoping to navigate the long process of changing the way the state redraws voting districts. Their aim is to give power back to the people and to curb the practice of gerrymandering.  

OneVirginia2021 is gaining support for its efforts across the state despite having yet to propose a specific plan for how to fairly draw the districts. What they do know for sure is that the current system, which in recent decades has led to extremely polarization, needs to change.  

When former Lynchburg delegate Shannon Valentine took a position with the group two months ago, she touched on the effects of gerrymandering:

“When districts are drawn for political purposes, the result is often gridlock with very little accountability, and a notably few number of elections whose outcome is even in doubt,” Valentine told a roomful of backers. “Voters begin to feel as though they are left out of the process.”

The biggest challenge for the group? An amendment to the state constitution is required to make the necessary changes. This means very strong bipartisan support for change would be required as both Democrats and Republicans have used the current system to organize their power in the past. Public support in addition to candidates running on redistricting reform may be the only hope for a shift.

Montgomery County Republican and former delegate David Nutter is a OneVirginia2021 board member as well.  He spoke with the Roanoke Times which analyzed the impact gerrymandering had on his political career:

Nutter’s decade in the General Assembly began with the GOP-controlled redrawing of lines in 2001 that put veteran Democrats Jim Shuler and Creigh Deeds in the same House of Delegates district. Shuler moved to avoid battling a fellow Democrat and faced Nutter in the 7th House District, which had been re-crafted to contain more Republican-leaning voters. Nutter defeated Shuler — who then moved again and regained his old seat when Deeds entered a special election for the Senate.

Ten years later, Nutter left the House to run for the 21st Senate seat, where another Republican-led redistricting was thought to have cut into incumbent John Edwards’ base. But Edwards won the 2011 election.

Such outcomes have become rarer, Nutter and other One Virginia 2021 organizers said. More typical, Nutter said last week, are districts that have such concentrations of one party or the other’s voters that the party’s nominating contest, not the general election, determines the outcome.

That gives legislators little incentive to find solutions that might involve compromising with the other party, Nutter and Valentine said. Nutter said that he hoped the legislative standoffs in Richmond would make voters more willing to support changes in how their representatives are picked.

Last December, Bob Gibson, Executive Director of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, wrote an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in which he provided historical context for gerrymandering in Virginia. He explained how technology and hyper partisanship have taken the problem to new extremes:

This is not new. Like death and taxes, the attempt to redraw legislative district lines for partisan advantage is a time-honored tradition in our republic. Gov. Patrick Henry tried and failed to gerrymander James Madison out of a congressional seat.

But the electronic gerrymandering knife now wielded by legislative majorities is so sharp and so partisan that, as of the 2011 reapportionment handiwork, it has rendered 90 percent of all Virginia House of Delegates and U.S. congressional districts uncompetitive in November elections.

Compromise once deemed essential to good policy making is demonized. As a result, compromise or cooperation with the other party can be punished, as actions portrayed as disloyalty to a party’s ideological base risk a party primary challenge.

Spring primaries, with their low turnouts, now offer the best chance to defeat incumbents in super-partisan districts. Delegates from Leesburg, Winchester and Petersburg were stung, and in two cases defeated, in primaries this year. Two Republicans who backed a bipartisan transportation plan including new taxes lost to anti-tax GOP primary opponents this June.

Now each political party grows farther apart ideologically from the other side and adopts more rigid litmus tests for loyalty.

Removing partisanship as the primary driver of redistricting will be hard but is critically needed to restore trust, compromise and fair competition to politics.

The problem is, a majority party is always reluctant to give up the power of redistricting.

OneVirginia2021 may not be making a massive impact yet, but few if any examples of similarly coordinated efforts have been identified across the country. Not unlike the Move to Amend movement which aims to take down Citizens United city by city, the mere act of organizing against something like gerrymandering is step one. And getting a seven year jump on enacting change is about as good a plan as any.

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