Oct. 4, 2017

Redistricting Reform Within Reach, Advocate Tells Batten Students

It’s “crunch time” for proponents of new boundaries for legislative districts, but according to Brian Cannon, executive director of the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021, that reform is within reach.

Cannon, who served as a guest lecturer in Professor Andy Pennock’s Political and Moral Dimensions of Public Policy course last week, discussed national redistricting trends with students and  his hopes for change in Virginia’s legislative maps.

“We’re pretty close to winning sufficient support for future redistricting,” Cannon said.

Redistricting advocates like Cannon aim to hand redistricting authority over to an independent, impartial commission to ensure what they see as fairer—and more competitive—races for candidates for the U.S. Congress, the Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia.

“We’re definitely closer than we were three years ago, so I think it’s more likely than not that we’ll see a victory in some sense, probably, and I think a pretty significant one.”

Cannon and his colleagues hope to help create competitive districts by urging the state legislature redraw boundaries to include neighboring communities—rather than the jagged, gerrymandered shapes that lump similar voters together in the same districts. (A commentary co-written by third-year Batten student Mary Peyton Baskin discusses this in detail.)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Oct. 3 hearing on Wisconsin’s district maps underscores the timeliness of this movement and will likely have national ramifications. The court won’t announce a decision until summer.

In Virginia, voters next month will select a new governor, as well as the attorney general, lieutenant governor and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates.

The gubernatorial winner have the power to control future legislative district lines, either by vetoing or signing into law a bill from House of Delegates and State Senate. That redistricting bill will come after the 2020 census.

Legislators also will draw lines for the 11 districts of the U.S House of Representatives.

“It’s a very populist wave we’re living in, so I feel actually now is a really good time for this issue,” said Cannon, who has been working since January 2015 to try to get the legislature to commit to redraw district boundaries after the census.

Brian Cannon speaking to Batten students

Ben Yahnian, a fourth-year student at Batten, said Cannon’s presentation was “amazing. This is a really important issue.

“We did some readings on it beforehand, but hearing someone verbalize their approach to solve that problem—how you can go about [this] in terms of strategies, how you move forward—it’s heartening.”

Yahnian, from Nashville, graduated in May with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. He will finish his Master’s degree in Public Policy this spring.

Cannon cited redistricting efforts in three states—New York, Ohio, and Nebraska—and said the reform movement is gaining ground by emphasizing that gerrymandering is corrupting the political system. They’ve adopted the model from campaign finance reform advocates.

Although Nebraska’s governor vetoed the reform effort, governors in New York and Ohio signed bills to redesign their legislative districts.

“I think this is a really key moment in Virginia’s history because we were gerrymandered by both parties, and because things have gotten out of line,” Cannon said.

“I think the timing is right for this,” he said, “as long as we can make this the ethical issue of the day.”

Cannon sees success coming with voters pressing the issue with their legislators, and with legislators listening to the appeals of specific influential citizens whom they know well and trust. Some states also rely on independent commissions to help draw the new maps.

To Yahnian, Cannon’s approach “is very practical and it’s very evidenced-based. I think that’s really important for policy solutions for students to be thinking about.”

 2001-2010 Virginia House of Delegates Districts (map courtesy of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Division of Legislative Services)