Va. Senate makes a move, and redistricting is handed off to federal judges

So that legislative session that was going to solve all of our gerrymandering problems? It was over almost before it began, with no problems solved. Or were all the problems solved through inaction! You be the judge.

Update #1 — August 18, 2015; 11:27 AM

Welp, that didn’t quite go as planned. Federal judges will now be the ones to redraw Virginia’s congressional districts.

Here’s what happened, and what will happen:

Three judges from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Virginia has unconstitutional congressional maps, as signed into law by Governor McDonnell in 2012. They gave the General Assembly until September 1st of this year to fix it, or they’d fix it themselves–this is a move you may recognize as an effective parenting one (“If you don’t clean your room, I’ll clean it myself, and you’re not going to like what I throw out and what I keep!”)

Governor McAuliffe called a special legislative session that kicked off yesterday. At this session, lawmakers were to hear from the public before State Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk would introduce a new bill. Votes would happen before the end of the month, things would be either vetoed or not vetoed by McAuliffe, we go on about our lives with a new map in which Black voters are not unfairly concentrated in a small number of districts.

The Senate voted to adjourn just a few hours into the session, and with the Senate unable (or refusing, depending on who you talk to) to vote, the House found itself unable to proceed. The thinking is that since the GA is Republican-led, the resulting map would do the bare minimum to take the districts from unconstitutional to constitutional, fulfilling the 4th Circuit’s wishes but not exactly doing a reform that many think Virginia desperately needs (see below). McAuliffe, Senate Democrats predict, would just veto anything the Republicans came up with, which would leave us in the same situation we were in last week. Might as well just end the session early, go back to our Bermuda shorts, and hand the map over to the feds.

Cutting off one of these scheduled speakers from the public, the House announced that they were no longer in session. And just like that, it was over.

Most of the (bi-partisan!) social change organizations are disappointed by this maneuver, which takes it out of the hands of the elected lawmakers, thereby taking it out of the hands of the people who elected them. These elected lawmakers, though, are ostensibly elected unfairly due to gerrymandering, so would they actually represent the people?

It turns out: politics are a giant whiteboard of Xs and Os and arrows. Sigh.

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Original — August 17, 2015

Map by: VPAP

State legislators are abandoning their beach houses and Bermuda shorts for a special session this week that will address the congressional map. Due to a U.S. District Court ruling that the shape of Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District is unconstitutional, state lawmakers have until September 1st to redraw the districts. If politicians can’t agree upon a final map–or if the Governor decides to veto what they do decided on–Federal judges will do the redistricting for us.

Gerrymandering is such an old practice and an old term that it’s kind of shocking it’s still a problem–moving district borders around so certain voters (usually black or other minority) fall into one particular district, lessening the impact of their vote.

Brian Cannon from One Virginia 2021 did some research and found that the oldest American redistricting issue originated with Richmond’s beloved Patrick Henry, when he redistricted James Madison out of his congressional seat.

“The way we redistrict is a perversion of our democracy,” says Cannon, who explained that it’s not an issue for which it’s easy to galvanize voters, as we only have one window every ten years to deal with it. We vote, we get mad briefly, we forget. Voters, in theory, are supposed to be picking their own politicians, but if the politicians control who votes where, it’s still just a theory.

Virginia is one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, and most of those are in the Mid-Atlantic (Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina also hold this honor). The three factors that make questionable districting practices so rampant: our diverse population, our mix of urban, rural, and suburban landscapes, and our annoying bodies of water, which make it easy to cut off one area from another.

Cannon hopes that the special session will end with a map that much more fairly and accurately represents the true spread of voters. He feels that the majority of statesmen and -women in the GA are willing to rise above petty politics and put an end to gerrymandering. “Some do it because they think it’s the right thing to do, some think it’s gotten out of hand, some will do it out of shame, and some do it so that they don’t want to be called out as a gerrymanderer,” he says. “History’s full of those ‘Why would they give up their own power?’ moments, but I think it’s because, overall, people believe in the Republic and think everybody should have their say and have a fair exchange of ideas.”

The strategies of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century has provided much inspiration for the redistricting movement. Let’s not forget that it’s been LESS than 100 years since women were federally granted the right to vote for their own politicians. One of the emotions you might feel from reading that sentence, depending on your sex and your race, might be shame. “It was shame, really,” says Cannon. “They shamed politicians into doing the right thing.” The Soviets had just taken over Russia, immediately giving Russian women the right to vote. President Woodrow Wilson didn’t exactly want to be behind Russia in the civil rights game.

“Even good politicians sometimes hold their nose and take bad votes,” says Cannon of the pressures on many politicians to soldier along without doing the unpleasant legwork of digging in and fixing this particular problem. But this week, they’ve all got to roll up their pant legs and wade into the murky and uncomfortable waters. It’s an executive order.

But Cannon remains optimistic–particularly since federal eyes are upon us. He won’t say what issues might have been decided differently if our districts had been drawn fairly to begin with, and at this point, all we can do is move forward.

Check back for more updates as the Special Session announces its progress.

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  1. What needs to be discussed is that the Congressional Districts were only supposed to be 50,000 people max. The ratified Congressional Apportionment Amendment clearly lays this out and is the real first amendment of the Bill of Rights, sadly 99.9 of have never been taught this amazing amendment since it would wrist power from the 218 bought and paid for Representatives and the .001% that control them.

  2. Joshu on said:

    The irony is that this majority-minority district was ordered to be created by the Justice Department in 1993 in what was essentially congressional district affirmative action, and now it’s been ordered to be dismantled.

  3. Chris on said:

    That’s not irony. That’s, at best, paraphrasing an uncited entry in wikipedia. “The district’s current configuration dates to 1993, when the Justice Department ordered Virginia to create a majority-minority district.”

    The state legislature, immediately following the 10-year census, redistricted in 1991 to create a version of the 3rd district. Prior to 1991, Virginia, along with most of the south, had 100 years of uninterrupted white representation through policies of diluting minority votes through cracking, stacking and packing. Despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and a nearly 20% African-American population, it took another 27 years for Virginia to elect it’s first, post reconstruction, black representative, Bobby Scott. In fact, the Justice Department, rightly ruled in 1997 that the district created in 1991 was disproportionate at over 60%. Governor Gilmore signed into law a new plan in 1998 that reduced the concentration to 50% and created the 3rd as we knew it until the redistricting that caused this court case.

    The court decision, linked in this article, was quite clear on why we are revisiting redistricting. The author of the redistricting plan, former VA House rep, Bill Janis, violated the Voting Rights Act by ignoring the principles of compactness, contiguity, and respect for political subdivisions. The district created in 1998 corrected these same issues from the 1991 iteration. Instead Mr. Janis focused solely on the principle of limiting retrogression, the act of reducing minority voting strength in any district. His defense was that if the VRA benchmark suggested 53% then 55% would be a sure thing. However, by ignoring those principles and solely focusing on race, he created the most non contiguous, non compact district in VA that packs more minorities than necessary, thereby decreasing their overall influence within the state. The court further found that if his goal had been to increase incumbency protection, a non racially motivated tactic than can lead to gerrymandering, there were several largely white, Democratic voting districts to incorporate.

    Excellent articles on redistricting in Virginia can be found here:
    and here:

    Also I would recommend Bernard Grofman’s book “Race and Redistricting in the 1990s” as it dives deep into the competing interests and political maneuvering surrounding 1991 plan. If anything, preserving incumbency trumped any sort of implied affirmative action and resulted in a token district as opposed to a proposed, bipartisan plan that would have created 5 minority majority districts.

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