Sep. 28, 2017

This Isn't About Party Politics; It's About Representation

This commentary was published in the September 24, 2017 issue of The Daily Progress.

Mary Peyton Baskin of Richmond is a third-year Batten student pursuing a degree in public policy and foreign affairs.

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After the deal goes down: crooked alpacas replace Virginia democracy

My rules: let’s deal.

Seven cards for me, three for you, and jokers are wild. But only for me.

That’s how our General Assembly works now. State legislators get to draw their own district boundaries. And they are manipulated so that incumbents have nearly unbeatable odds in favor of their own re-election.

The result is that the competitive electoral process has been shut down across our state. These elections aren’t an expression of the will of the majority. They’re a sham that tries to legitimize one-party rule—bad for both Republicans and Democrats and more importantly, for all of us citizens.

The 2015 election, for example, promised 100 percent job security. Of 122 incumbents running for re-election, all 122 kept their seats.

This can be fixed, but first let’s look at the results of a nakedly self-dealing system. These are the little crooked puzzle pieces that you, and I, and the rest of the citizenry, inhabit—the silhouette-symbols of your disenfranchisement. Regardless of your party, the power of your vote has often been clipped, snipped and ripped off.

Here’s the curiously shaped House of Delegates District 58 that includes Albemarle County. 

 

Hmmmnn. What could explain that particular configuration, with all those little lumps and notches? Republicans, the party in power in the House, designed that, back in 2011, the last time redistricting occurred.

And Democrats, who held the majority in the state Senate then, drew this weird Senate district 25, that Charlottesville lies within:

 

Here’s a final, fun example, House District 22 in central Virginia. You can imagine the conversation among our lawmakers when they drew this up. “Tell you what!” one may have said. “Let’s draw an alpaca having two crooked conversations!”

Most General Assembly districts are just as screwball. The state constitution says the legislature has to redraw its districts every ten years, following the census. The rules are simple: districts “must be contiguous and compact to ensure fair representation.” That’s vague enough that both parties have drawn districts to their own advantage, depending on who’s in the majority. It’s called gerrymandering—a process that dates back to the Founders.

But now conflict of interest in which our legislature draws its own district boundaries has been completely weaponized. According to Blake Wheelock of the non-partisan, non-profit group OneVirginia2021, the current maps are a result of a “devil’s bargain” between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate in 2011. Each approved the other’s scheme. Our lawmakers hand-picked their voters to stay in power. The lawmakers have carved up Virginia’s Congressional districts in that same way.

How bad is the new gerrymandering? Well, Virginia elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, or U.S. president don’t rely upon districts, they’re statewide. Sometimes Virginia swings Democratic, sometimes Republican. But within our jiggered state legislative districts, bipartisan Virginia vanishes. Two-thirds of the House of Delegates belongs to Republicans, within a state that often votes Democratic, overall. The state legislature has also used its power to draw U.S. House and Senate district boundaries. They’re crooked, too.

This isn’t just about party politics, it’s about lack of representation. In the 2015 elections, only one of the two major parties bothered to field a candidate in 71 percent of House of Delegates districts. Only half of the State Senate districts saw a real race. In gerrymandered Virginia, why run a futile campaign?

Don’t let yourself turn away in disgust. There’s plenty of hope, but “hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up,” and that’s where you come in. The next round of redistricting comes in 2021, and voters have some powerful tools at hand.

You could consider signing OneVirginia2021’s petition at onevirginia2021.org/participate/petition/, as 55,000 Virginians have already done. The group aims to unite citizens to take redistricting away from out-of-control state lawmakers and establish an independent commission. That’s not an impossible goal: six states have handed redistricting authority over to independent commissions.

Fifteen local governments have also approved the resolution, including Charlottesville and Albemarle County. You could print the resolution here and present it to other local officials.

Finally: Virginia is electing every member of the House of Delegates in November. Nine candidates are running for four seats in the Charlottesville area. Find your candidates at http://www.vpap.org.

Call, write and email them now, whichever party they represent. Ask them why they’re not fighting hard to bring credibility back to our state elections, and integrity back to the office they seek. Get them to say they’ll fight a rotten system with strong legislation to control gerrymandering with an independent commission. Then let us all know you’ve done it.

Map of 2001-2010 House of Delegates districts courtesy of the Virginia Division of Legislative Services (DLS) web site

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Mary Peyton Baskin

Stephen Nash teaches journalism at the University of Richmond. His book Grand Canyon for Sale—Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change was published in September by the University of California Press.