The Future of Gerrymandering in Virginia

Image Source: Noé Alfaro – CC BY 2.0

Indexes, such as the Democracy Index published by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, have to be taken with a grain of salt— one suspects that neoliberal western countries get a somewhat easier ride from The Economist.

In any event, the Democracy Index is fraught with anomalies. In the 2020 Index, the US is ranked 25thout of 167 countries, and placed in the “flawed democracy” category, while the UK is ranked 17th and placed in the “full democracy” category— notwithstanding the fact that evidence emerges daily relating to the Tory government’s massive corruption in awarding no-bid Covid procurement contracts worth tens of billions to its cronies.

In the UK, the budget revealed last week showed, in its fine print, that funding in 2021/22 for the disastrously inefficient test and trace system alone (this excludes contracts for PPE, etc.) commits “a further £15 billion next year”, on top of £22bn this financial year to March 31, taking total expenses for the broken-backed service to a massive £37bn/$52bn over two years.

So how does a Mobutu- or Marcos-like kleptocracy on this scale in Ukania somehow qualify it as a “full democracy”?

At the same time, it should not be assumed that what’s happening in the US in general, and Virginia in particular, is small potatoes compared to the UK.

Pillaging of public funds, however massive, is merely one component in determining the constitution of a democracy.

Other considerations include the political influence exerted by monied interests and patronage networks such as lobbies, pressures to limit the franchise for marginalized groups (typically involving racially-based criteria), the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the media, the integrity of electoral systems (barely intact after Trump’s shenanigans this past year), the rigged Electoral College system, and of course the use of gerrymandering.

According to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, Virginia has a long history of bipartisan and equal-opportunity gerrymandering, dating back to 1779 when Patrick Henry attempted to redraw Virginia’s 5th Congressional District to the advantage of his own party.

Both main political parties gerrymander in Virginia. For example, in 1991, Democrats redrew the district of former Republican congressman (later governor and US Senator) George Allen to force him out of office.

In 2000, Republican majorities gerrymandered House Democratic Minority Leader Richard Cranwell out of the district he had represented for 29 years by relocating his home on the electoral map and placing it in the district of a popular 22-year Democratic Delegate.

Since the redrawing of electoral districts takes place every 10 years after the US Census is published, the temptation to cement one’s electoral advantage for at least a decade is hard to resist, and there is of course the desire to exact revenge against political opponents who weren’t exactly fair in previous redrawings of the electoral map and the elections that followed.

In a surprising development, a group of Virginia Democrats gave up this opportunity to gerrymander, when they voted in favour of an amendment to the State Constitution depriving themselves of the power to redraw legislative district maps in 2021, after the decennial US Census.

In 2020, Democrats won majorities in both houses of the Virginia Legislature; and with a Democratic governor already in office, they took full control of the state government for the first time in a generation.

The ultimate aim of gerrymandering is of course to ensure that your party wins seats even when it loses the popular vote.

While both Democrats and Republicans were divided on measures to end gerrymandering, a sufficient number from both sides agreed to a cross-party measure that would require Virginia’s district maps to be drawn by a bipartisan commission made up of lawmakers and regular citizens.

Voters ratified the amendment in November 2020, so it will now go into effect.

Virginia’s changing demographics have a lot to do with this shift of opinion in the Virginia Legislature.

With population growth in the Northern Virginian crescent around Washington DC, where high-income tech and government jobs are proliferating, the Republican base in the state is shrinking, and is increasingly confined to its rural areas. The Republican party’s opportunities for a gerrymander are reduced accordingly.

Time therefore for the GOP to find some rules that will create conditions not disadvantaging them electorally in the future.

While winners can afford to make fairness a cynical and less-preferred option, losers are more inclined to make fairness their first choice.

For the Democrats, Virginia’s historical red-state political leanings have meant that gerrymandering, although working to their benefit occasionally, has served the Republican party better in the longer term.

Virginia’s new constitutional amendment establishes a 16-member commission, made up of 8 lawmakers and 8 citizens, divided evenly between the two major parties. An overall majority of both lawmaker and citizen commissioners would have to agree on a proposed map to send it to the Legislature for approval. If agreement is not forthcoming in the commission, the task moves on to the State Supreme Court.

Some black Democratic lawmakers opposed the amendment on the grounds that it didn’t provide enough safeguards for black voters, who have long been deprived of adequate political representation by gerrymandered electoral maps. In the past 5 years alone, federal courts in Virginia have rejected Republican-drawn state and congressional districts for deliberate discrimination against black voters.

The new commission, born of compromise, is of course flawed. It includes lawmakers, for long the major architects of Virginia’s gerrymandering, and the new structure allows 8 of these proverbial foxes to guard the henhouse.

The henhouse may be ringed with the equivalent of CCTV, but Republicans nationwide continue to find ways to undermine efforts to make voting fairer. In Missouri, Utah and Michigan, Republican lawmakers are seeking to torpedo voter-led ballot initiatives that were passed by citizens fed-up with the chicanery of their so-called representatives.

The newly-created Virginia Redistricting Commission has held its first meeting, and picked two citizen chairwomen, Democrat Greta Harris and Republican Mackenzie Babichenko, with each taking turns to chair commission meetings.

The Commission’s work is going to be slow for now—Virginia’s electoral maps can’t be redrawn until new US Census data is available, but the COVID pandemic has slowed-down the current Census, and the Census findings may not be obtainable in time to create new maps for this year’s Virginia House primaries in late August or early September.

If new maps can’t be drafted in time, this year’s House elections will probably be held using the currently-drawn districts.

At the first meeting commissioners introduced themselves and began discussing guidelines for their procedures.

Predictably, some of the foxy lawmakers on the commission, experienced and at ease with procedural matters, tried to get a head start on their colleagues– three of them began by proposing a list of specific lawyers the commission might hire as its legal advisers.

The proverbial chickens on the commission may need more help if this corralling in advance by the commission’s lawmakers becomes a pattern.

If not, the tenure of the commission’s chickens could be remembered for a scenario of scattered feathers and bones.

A most welcome start has been made in dealing with Virginia’s gerrymandering, but as they say, only time will tell. 

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.