ESSAY- Now's the time: Take politics out of redistricting
For weeks before the November elections, news media all over the state touted the fact that all 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly were up for grabs and that the Democrats hoped to become the majority in each house.
On election night, as I trolled the Internet for statewide results, I made a startling discovery.
More than half the seats were uncontested: of 100 delegates and 40 senators, 77 seats had only one candidate. Looking at the other races, less than 25 percent had viable candidates.
In reality, of 140 races, only 32 were up for grabs.
Yet according to the Virginia Political Access Project, as of two weeks before Election Day, over $25 million had been raised for races in the House of Delegates, and over $28 million for the Senate– for a total of just under $54 million to spend.
Finally, only about 27 percent of registered voters statewide went to the polls. And registered voters represent only about 47 percent of qualified voters in Virginia. By contrast, 85 percent of French citizens (whom many Americans deprecate) turned out in France's last election. Even India and England had rates of 59 percent.
What's wrong with politics in Virginia? Tens of millions of dollars spent on relatively few races, most of them not even competitive. Less than a third of voters turning out. The apathy probably has many causes, but the gerrymandering of districts to favor the party in power results in a lack of competition. Who wants to run when the deck is stacked? Yet the lack of real choice leads to increased apathy among potential candidates and among voters.
Redistricting occurs every 10 years, shortly after the census is complete. The legislature decides how to re-draw lines so that each statewide district represents approximately the same number of individuals; they are mandated to do the same for the congressional districts.
However, while proportionality and compactness are required, politics rules the final redistricting. When the Democrats controlled the Virginia House and Senate, they reapportioned the districts to favor Democrats and to disfavor Republicans. When the Republicans took over in 1993, they reversed that trend– districts were redrawn to consolidate Democratic areas and to enhance Republican districts, thereby keeping the status quo of Republican rule.
Some of these gerrymandered districts make no real social and geographic sense. For example, one Virginia Senator, Frank Ruff, has a district that stretches from southside Virginia near the North Carolina line east and north across the state to include Fluvanna County, a rural community more culturally and economically bound to the Central Virginia Piedmont than to Southside. Similarly, two Republicans from the Shenandoah Valley, Emmett Hanger and Steve Landes, represent areas east of the Blue Ridge (portions of Albemarle and Greene counties) that are not at all involved in Valley issues.
Virginia is not alone in redistricting shenanigans, but many other states have moved toward use of independent bi-partisan commissions to help determine legislative and congressional districts, thus restoring some balance to the districts so that voters have more of a choice. In Washington State, for example, majority and minority members of the state legislature select two Republicans and two Democrats to serve as voting members who then select a non-voting chairman. In Arizona, the constitution specifies criteria for fair districts, which includes favoring competitive districts.
Last year State Senator Creigh Deeds proposed an amendment to the Virginia Constitution to create a bi-partisan legislative commission in charge of reapportionment. This bill was a step in the right direction, but after it passed the Senate, it died in a House committee.
Now that the power in the General Assembly is divided between Democrats and Republicans (Democratic Virginia Senate and Republican House of Delegates), the opportunity exists to take redistricting out of the hands of the politicians and hand it over to a bi-partisan commission. Such a commission, appointed jointly by legislature and governor, could be directed to draw districts not according to incumbency, but by geographic and regional interests. This would require a constitutional amendment; it would also require politicians to rise above politics and give up the game of political redistricting.
In America and Virginia, where we applaud free market competition, why not even the playing field in politics and enliven the voters with real choices during elections?
Kay Slaughter, a Democrat, is an environmental attorney who served on Charlottesville's City Council, including a stint as mayor.