Every decade after the federal census, state legislatures are responsible for drawing the boundaries of the House of Representatives and the House of Delegates and State Senate districts. By Supreme Court decisions districts are to be equal in population (slight deviations allowed) and are to provide equal protection of the law for all persons.
Even with these limitations, drawing legislative district lines is a division of power as well as population. Going back to Elbridge Gerry in 1812, redistricting has been recognized as a political exercise as well as legislative responsibility when one of the districts proposed looked like a salamander, hence the term gerrymandering.
Virginia’s redistricting in 2011 provided the Republican majority in the House and Senate an opportunity to expand their numbers but also left many people feeling that they were not treated fairly. A challenge to the congressional districts resulted in a federal court finding the districts violated the rights of minorities, especially in the 3rd Congressional district that packed African Americans in a district extending from Richmond to Norfolk, albeit rather narrow in some places.
While such a district virtually ensured the election of an African American congressman, Bobby Scott, it at the same time may have limited African Americans to a single district. When the General Assembly was unable or unwilling to redraw the lines, the federal courts took the responsibility with an expert consultant who is expected to complete the task by the end of October.
Presently, there are several lawsuits that are challenging the House of Delegates districts on the same arguments used against the Congressional districts. It is likely that these districts will be thrown out as well, and I and the other delegates elected in these districts on Nov. 3, 2015, would have to run again in 2016 and to get back on schedule again in 2017.
This is the same series of events that happened over unconstitutional districts in 1981, 1982, and 1983. Once again it is unlikely that the House of Delegates will be able to redraw the lines that might result in unseating incumbents, and the court will need to do the job for the House.
Drawing district lines is the greatest conflict of interest that legislators face. The natural tendency is self-preservation and to hold onto power. That is why I introduced legislation in 1982 to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission in Virginia, the first such proposed in the Commonwealth. It has never passed, but the most recent challenges in the state on this issue as well as an increasing number of states that are going to commissions may propel it forward. OneVirginia2021 is a group actively working to make it happen in Virginia.
I recently attended a conference, Redistricting Reform: Mapping Our Future, sponsored by Common Cause and the George Washington University School of Law. I was impressed with the amount of research and study that has been done on the process and the methodologies that have been developed to measure partisan gerrymandering.
Under the current system, there are only 38 of 100 House and 23 of 40 Senate seats challenged in the current elections because districts are gerrymandered to determine the outcome. There is adequate information available for Virginia to do a fairer, less partisan job of drawing the lines.