- Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 April 2009 21:16
- Published on Wednesday, 08 April 2009 21:16
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I’ve got news for you. Elections for the House of Delegates, State Senate, and yes, even our members of Congress, aren’t as democratic or representative as you might think.
A good example is the 2007 elections for the House of Delegates and State Senate. In the House of Delegates only 20 of the 100 seats up for election were considered truly competitive. That meant, for all practical purposes, that when it came to the other 80 seats it didn’t matter whether the voters showed up or not. In the State Senate, out of 40 seats, only 8 were deemed competitive. The rest were sure things.
While this arrangement, made possible by districts carefully drawn to guarantee a specific outcome, suits incumbents and the parties, it’s not representative politics. The fault, sadly, lies in a time worn system that leaves drawing the district lines, both for the General Assembly and the Congress to the Legislature.
It’s been this way for years and the results haven’t been impressive. Depending on who was in power one party or the other, most recently the Republicans, have used this tool with all the finesse of a club to reduce voter participation and guarantee that incumbents face as little opposition as possible.
A good example was back in 1990. The Democrats, the dominant party for years, were losing ground in the General Assembly and redistricting offered the chance to do something about it. With control of the Assembly and a Democrat in the Governor’s mansion, that was all they needed to redraw the districts to their liking. With a meticulous attention to detail they siphoned off friendly voters from several Republican held seats, redistricted some members out of their seats altogether, and in one case put two Republicans in the same district.
It may sound crass, but this is standard practice in the business of gerrymandering. Most importantly it had the desired effect. The Republicans lost several seats in the next election.
However, that setback was overcome by the GOP’s rise during the 1990’s and by 2001 the Republicans had a narrow margin in the General Assembly. Now it was their turn to use redistricting to bolster their majorities. However, this time, they had a tool the Democrats didn’t have ten years earlier: sophisticated redistricting software. Using precise demographic and voting data, thanks to this application, districts could be shuffled and aligned right down to the street and neighborhood level. In other words, for the most part, the outcome of an election could be guaranteed.
The redistricting also included Congressional districts. Once again, the goal was to keep the number of swing districts to a minimum. In our case, in the First, the district has been drawn with such meticulous care that a Democrat simply has no chance. This is also the case with the seventh and the tenth districts, which are drawn to so solidly Republican that it could argued that there really isn’t any value to voting. The same can be said for the two guaranteed Democratic seats the third and the eighth. Only three seats could be said to be marginal or competitive.
However, while this brand of winner-take-all district alignment has been the norm for decades not everyone thinks the status quo is a good idea. For the past seven years Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) has introduced a bill to create a bipartisan redistricting commission. The structure would be simple. A bipartisan commission with an equal number of members from each party and one independent would draw the districts. The goal would be to keep them contiguous, representative and competitive. Unfortunately, the bill has always gone down to defeat. But this year, while the bill failed, it did pick up more momentum than usual.
The idea of bipartisan redistricting has support from each of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor. Creigh Deeds, Brian Moran, and Terry McAuliffe, all say they’re for it. As for the Republican candidate, Attorney General Bob McDonnell, he hasn’t said one way or the other what his position is on a bipartisan commission.
Depending on the results of this year’s election, redistricting in 2011 could be extremely difficult. The Senate is held by the Democrats and the House of Delegates by the Republicans. Neither body is likely to change hands. This sets up a potentially protracted disagreement between the two chambers that could put the new Governor in a tough position trying to sort it out. Before it’s through it could be a painful and embarrassing mess. At which point, those who voted against a bi-partisan commission might well wish they hadn’t.