Every decade the subject of redistricting becomes a hot topic, and since the 1960s, with the passage of the Voting and Civil Rights acts, it has become a living for partisan advocates and lawyers.
Precious little about the process of drawing district lines is given – likely intentionally – in the U.S. Constitution. Article I, Section 2, merely directs that every 10 years the number of representatives per state be determined by population. Section 4 says that the “times, places and manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature therof.” Nowhere does the Constitution direct the drawing of “districts,” but that has become the custom in the U.S.
Virginia has a long history of partisanship in redistricting. In an extremely informative episode of The Diane Rehm Show in 2011 (you can still find the transcript online), Sean O’Brien, then the executive director of the Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier, relayed this bit of Virginia history:
“Patrick Henry was governor of Virginia, he was an anti-Federalist, James Madison was a Federalist. Patrick Henry arranged for James Madison not to get elected to the Senate because at that time the Senate was chosen by the members of the state legislature. So, James Madison was going to have to run for Congress if he wanted to be able to introduce the Bill of Rights.”
O’Brien continued his story about Madison being encouraged to return to Virginia from the Continental Congress in order to campaign against anti-Federalist James Monroe because the district had been drawn with “1,000 eccentric angles.”
Partisanship with district lines is as old as our nation. While the above refers to federal districts, how the state determines its legislators for the Virginia General Assembly is similar. And, according to a judicial ruling this past June, eleven House of Delegates districts were found unconstitutional. The court ruled that lawmakers have until Tuesday, Oct. 30, to come up with a plan that passes muster.
Why is this of concern? Because the current makeup in the House is 51 Republicans to 49 Democrats. The next election of all of them is in 2019, and whoever has the majority in that legislative body in 2020 – based on that 2019 election – will draw new districts.
The House Democrats’ proposed do-over this summer was dead on arrival.
And the Republican plan, which actually was garnering some bipartisan support, was recently torpedoed by Gov. Ralph Northam.
“I must unequivocally state that I will veto House Bill 7003 should it reach my desk,” he wrote in a press release.
Northam believes that the GOP bill does not protect minority representation. So, his current position, should no other legislative proposal come to fruition, is to allow the courts to draw the lines. And the governor says in the same release that he has been championing nonpartisan redistricting since his first campaign in 2007, but he also said as recently as Sept. 26 that redistricting was a “legislative process.”
And, lest you think the governor is being high-minded, he conveniently has had a “scheduling conflict” for a fundraiser that he had previously agreed to with Del. Stephen Heretick, D-Portsmouth. Heretick had the gall to break ranks on redistricting.
To this end, Speaker Kirk Cox has called the governor’s bluff and is willing to let the issue be resolved by the court. He has decided that it’s no use to waste taxpayer money on a session when the governor has already, evidently, made up his mind.
The key takeaway from this episode really should be clear: Northam is as much a politician as everyone else, and partisanship is the sole reason he desires the courts become involved.
When the governor says he wants “fair and constitutional lines,” what he’s hoping for is that the prospect of a Democratic majority in 2019 dramatically improves.
Should that majority be gained?
See how quickly Northam’s and his Democratic loyalists calls for nonpartisan redistricting dissipate.
Probably as fast as any other political party’s that has gained the majority every ten years.
This column appears in The Princess Anne Independent News