With New Census Coming Next Year, General Assembly Must Act Soon to Reform Redistricting Process

February 25, 2009 — Every 10 years, a new U.S. census sets the stage for a round of political redistricting in Virginia and the nation. It also brings the likelihood that the boundaries of some newly drawn voting districts will be manipulated in an obvious effort to benefit one political party. This popular but unfair practice is called gerrymandering.

Virginia, with a history of gerrymandering going back to the earliest days of the nation, should begin a reform process immediately to prepare for the redistricting that the 2010 census will require, recommends an analysis in The Virginia News Letter, published this month by the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

Gerrymandering appears to be adversely affecting competition and voter turnout in Virginia, the report finds.

One reform method, now used by several states, would be to create an independent body to assist the legislature in redrawing district boundary lines, according to the article, "Gerrymandering's Long History in Virginia: Will This Decade Mark The End?," by Kenneth S. Stroupe Jr. A state constitutional amendment establishing a redistricting commission is another possibility the General Assembly could consider, but time to pass an amendment by 2010 has nearly run out.

Stroupe, chief of staff at U.Va.'s Center for Politics and a member of the state Commission on Civics Education, recommends the legislature strongly consider establishing an independent panel of current or former state judges to assist in redistricting. Even though such an advisory panel would have no force of law, "The General Assembly will have achieved the first step in a good-faith effort with the people of Virginia in building true long-term reform of this process," Stroupe writes.

Although the legislature may also propose a constitutional amendment calling for an autonomous redistricting commission during the current session, such an effort must pass in two consecutive sessions and then be presented to the voters.

Stroupe analyzes numerous instances of gerrymandering by both Democrats and Republicans in Virginia and the nation, beginning with an attempt by Patrick Henry in 1788 to redraw a congressional district to foil the political hopes of James Madison.

The word “gerrymandering” originated in the 1810-11 term of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who proposed a voting district that looked like a salamander. Playing off the odd shape of the district and the governor's name, a newspaper reporter coined the word.

Indeed, an unusual shape to a voting district is one strong indicator that it may have been drawn to benefit the party in power, Stroupe points out. That may then lead to court challenges. Still, even today, three redistricting cases stemming from the 2001 redistricting in Virginia are being examined in state or federal courts.

If gerrymandering was limited to an oddly shaped district here and there, the practice might not be of great concern. But there is a growing body of research that it damages democratic government by reducing two-party competition, protecting incumbents and reducing voter turnout, writes Stroupe, who served as press secretary to Republican Gov. George Allen and has been appointed to the civics education commission by two Democratic governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

His research shows that over the last decade, the number of elections for Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate in which the winning candidate earned 55 percent or less of the vote is "shockingly low."

Using that figure as a benchmark for a competitive election, he found the highest number of competitive elections in the House in any one year during this decade was just 14 out of a possible 100. In the State Senate, only eight of the 40 seats had elections that could be called competitive. Average voter turnout was significantly lower in elections that weren't competitive, Stroupe found.

Gerrymandering isn't always the reason for low competition and low turnout. But, "to the extent this form of political manipulation results in voter apathy and suppression, it serves as a significant limitation on one of the greatest exercises of liberty possessed by the citizens of this state and nation," Stroupe writes. "It is time the 'Cradle of Democracy' became the 'Graveyard of Gerrymandering.'"

Kenneth Stroupe can be reached at 434-243-8474 or kss2a@virginia.edu.

The article is on the Web at  www.coopercenter.org/publications/vanewsletter/.

— By Rebecca Arrington