The redistricting process is one that voters should should follow more closely than they have in the past. It is critically important for the future of democracy and how citizens choose their leaders. Over the last ten years, redistricting software used to draw districts has become so sophisticated that representatives, in effect, have chosen their constituents rather than the other way around. In the process, we have been left with more political partisanship, less competition, and greater political cynicism in our electorate. Under the U. S. Constitution, redistricting must to occur every ten years; it is through this process that legislators are supposed to readjust the boundaries in light of population shifts. The U.S. Supreme Court has set specific standards for the constitutionality of redistricting. If you would like some additional background on the subject, go to One Virginia 2021, Virginians for Fair Redistricting, to read more.
Standards for constitutional redistricting suggests that districts be compact, contiguous, and include populations that have a “community of interest.” The 57th House District that I represent actually is a good example of this. It looks like a circle and includes mostly urban and suburban areas that have similar strengths, values, and challenges. Many districts in Virginia, however, are not drawn this way, and often appear as strange shapes.
We return to Richmond because of the ruling of the federal court that when the Virginia General Assembly drew the lines for the Virginia Congressional Districts in 2011, the 3rd Congressional District was drawn in an unconstitutional way. On October 7, 2014, the federal court issued its opinion and directed the General Assembly to redraw the lines. The Republicans appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. In March 2015, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and sent it back to the district court. On June 5, 2015, the district court directed the General Assembly to redraw the unconstitutional lines by September 1, 2015. When the Republican-controlled legislature showed no desire to have a special session to do this, the Governor issued a call for this session in a letter of July 16, 2015. Two weeks later, he sent another letter to the House and Senate Democratic and Republican Leadership asking us to return to Richmond before the special session began to see if we could develop a bipartisan map prior to the session. The Republican Leadership said no. It is clear that the Republican Leadership wants no part of drawing new Congressional lines, feeling that it will upset their present 8-3 majority in the Congressional delegation, and will potentially lead to the election of a delegation which more closely conforms to what is the present political configuration in our state, where about 50 percent of the citizens vote Democratic and 50 percent vote Republican.
In my view, we have a short-term and a long-term problem. First, we are under a court order to act by September 1, 2015. For attorneys like myself, court orders are a big deal; without complying with court orders, we undermine the Rule of Law. Hence, we need to find a fix to remedy the unconstitutional map drawn in 2011. With this in mind, Democratic Leadership is proposing a new map that we believe addresses the constitutional infirmities with the old lines. We did so in order to give the public an opportunity to comment and offer suggestions in advance of the General Assembly session. We have also challenged our Republican colleagues to develop a map of their own so we can work together to fix the short-term problem.
Our map specifically accomplishes the following:
- In redrawing the 3rd District, race is no longer the predominant consideration. The 3rd District is no long “packed” in a way that violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which made the old map unconstitutional.
- The new Congressional map has districts that are more compact that the old unconstitutional plan.
- The new map respects communities of interest and does not divide political subdivisions the way the old map did.
- The new map meets the standards of Article II, Section 6, of the Virginia Constitution, which requires that “every electoral district shall be composed of continuous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practical, representation in proportion to the population of the district.”
- The map is drawn to equally divide the population of Virginia between all eleven districts and conform with the one person – one vote rule.
- The new districts comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in that they maintain the opportunity of minorities to elect candidates of their choice. While the 3rd District moves a number of African-Americans to make the line drawing constitutional, there are other districts where African-American voting population increases, specifically in the 3rd district and the 5th (our Congressional district).
- Many of the new districts are more competitive than ones that existed under the old plan, especially in the 10th, 5th, and 3rd. In reviewing the voting pattern in the proposed districts, five of them tend to vote Democratic in greater numbers than Republicans, five of them tend to vote Republican in greater number than Democrats, and one is a district that can and does vote both ways, depending on the election. This is the type of competitiveness we believe Virginians want.
As a long-term solution, many legislators support creation of a non-partisan redistricting commission. I have supported these bills since I was elected to the General Assembly in 2006 and will continue to do so. The Republicans have defeated them in every single session. These commissions have been found to be constitutional by the U. S. Supreme Court. To date, House Republicans have expended over $300,000 in Virginia taxpayer dollars in legal fees defending redistricting cases, including $225,000 in the Congressional case where the line drawing has been shown to be unconstitutional. If we had a non-partisan redistricting commission, it is less likely that these kinds of taxpayer expenses would be incurred, and more likely that the line drawing would not be designed for incumbent protection or an unconstitutional purpose, but instead would be based on the principle that citizens should have an opportunity to choose their own representatives rather than the other way around.
While many of my colleagues may bristle at the notion of having their ability to draw lines taken away from them, those who have studied this issue carefully believe that our long-term goals of diminishing political partisanship and enhancing voters’ control over the electoral process will be better served by nonpartisan commissions. It is my hope that the General Assembly will embrace this concept sooner rather than later.
###Delegate David J. Toscano represents the 57th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates, which is comprised of the City of Charlottesville and a portion of Albemarle County, a seat once held by Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Toscano also serves as the House Democratic Leader, a position he has held since 2011. You may contact his office in Charlottesville at (434) 220-1660, or email him, firstname.lastname@example.org.