The implosion of the Virginia Redistricting Commission was as predictable as the latest James Bond movie. We all knew something was going to go boom; we just weren’t sure exactly when or how.
The Bond movie just happens to be more entertaining. And maybe, in the end, a bit more surprising.
So who should we blame for the commission’s gridlock, which apparently came to its denouement on Friday when the commission’s Democratic co-chair walked out and said she was done?
Should we blame Republicans, who refused to vote for what Democrats thought was a workable compromise?
Should we blame Democrats, whose mapmakers sprang a surprise map after the public hearings, which aggravated Republicans?
Or should we blame the very structure of the commission, which calls for an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, half of each being state legislators who have a vested interest in the outcome?
The correct answer is certainly the latter; if you want to add in one of the others, depending on your political tastes, feel free. The reality, though, is that the odds of this commission ever agreeing on maps were as slim as James Bond retiring to a life of comfort in the Caribbean. In redrawing the state’s legislative lines to comport with the latest census results, somebody is always going to win and somebody is always going to lose. Neither party can agree to a loss for their side.
It’s easy to blame partisanship, as if that were a bad thing. We have two major parties, though, because people often see the world in very different ways. One of the many sticking points for the commission was a fundamental disagreement between the two parties about how much race should factor into the line-drawing. That’s not a big deal in this part of the state, where minority populations are generally small and it’s impossible to draw a minority-majority district, but race is a paramount concern in other places.
Consider this passage in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s coverage of the commission:
During one recent meeting, GOP citizen member Richard Harrell of South Boston said the commission shouldn’t “try to resolve issues from the past,” speaking of the systemic disenfranchisement of Black voters. “That’s regrettable. That’s the past. We’re dealing with today.”
On Friday, Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said: “People can’t understand why those of us who sit on this commission as African Americans have to battle about why that’s important to have in these discussions.”
Harrell, and perhaps other Republicans, seems to have forgotten the advice given by the great Southern writer William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Even if we could magically wave a wand – perhaps that “wand of power” that the chair of Virginia’s parole board once referred to – and resolve all the complicated issues of race, there are still other fundamental differences that the two parties have on redistricting.
Consider the issue of how to draw state Senate districts in the Roanoke and New River valleys. Is a “community of interest” best defined geographically, with compact districts that only split cities and counties when absolutely necessary to make the math work out? Or is a “community of interest” more cultural, more ideological, with respect for jurisdictional lines not that important a consideration?
Republicans and Democrats have two very different ways of answering those questions – at least right now. The Republican maps drew a state Senate district that put Roanoke, Salem and most of Roanoke County in one district, and left Montgomery County intact with a lot of its neighbors. Those maps are geographically logical; they also create a Republican-leaning district in the Roanoke Valley and a solidly Republican district that the Democratic voters of Blacksburg and Radford would have to live in. The Democratic maps slice and dice, connecting Roanoke with Blacksburg and Radford by way of some back roads on Bent Mountain, to create a state Senate district more favorable to them.
There’s really no way the two parties can split the difference there. If Democrats agree to the Republican cartography, then they lose a senator – presently John Edwards – from a Senate that’s right now only 21-19 in their favor. If Republicans agree to the Democratic version, then they’re conceding a Democratic seat when they feel they don’t have to.
If you feel strongly on some topic that splits along party lines – such abortion or guns – then this isn’t just a matter of whether Edwards gets to stay in office or not, it’s a matter of what direction state policy should take. You can’t expect a Democrat to vote for a map they know will lead to outcomes they don’t want; you can’t expect a Republican to do the same. To switch our literary motif for a moment, we must turn to the counsel that Tyrion Lannister offered Jon Snow in “Game of Thrones” when the King of the North was trying to persuade Daenerys Targaryen to divert herself from her planned conquest of Westeros to fight the zombie-like White Walkers instead: “It’s not a reasonable thing to ask.”
So what is reasonable? In approving the constitutional amendment that set up this commission, Virginia voters made it abundantly clear they don’t want a single party drawing the lines, as has been the practice in the past. Both parties have shown us, both over time and again this time, that they can’t be trusted to draw lines without gerrymandering.
What voters probably wanted was a truly nonpartisan commission. Instead, what they got – because the legislators who had to write the language couldn’t bring themselves to let go of the process completely – was a bipartisan commission. And, as we’ve seen, a deadlock. Some people believe that in these polarized times, there’s no such thing as a nonpartisan voter. Still, it’s worth looking at how other states with redistricting commissions structure theirs. Most have some mix of Democrats and Republicans; how they manage to agree would be worth studying. But a few make a point of trying to find “unaffiliated” citizens to serve on a redistricting commission.
Arizona, Pennsylvania and Montana all have five-member commissions – two from each party, and then those four must agree on the fifth. Pennsylvania has the added provision that if the partisans can’t agree on a fifth member, then the state Supreme Court will. You’ll see that the courts are the option of last resort in many of these states.
California has a 14-member commission – five from each party and four who aren’t identified with either side. Some members are chosen by lottery from a pool; the rest are chosen by the initial commission members. It sounds complicated but the goal is to have some nonpartisan members.
New Jersey has two different commissions, one to draw lines for the state legislature, one for drawing congressional lines. They’re set up slightly differently. The legislative committee has 10 members, five from each party. If they can’t agree on a map, then the chief justice of the state Supreme Court appoints an 11th member as a tie-breaker. (I suspect our court would prefer this to having the responsibility for drawing the lines.) The congressional committee has 12 members, six from each party. They must then pick a 13th member; if they can’t agree, then the chief justice does.
Colorado’s commission has 11 members – Democratic legislators pick two, Republican legislators pick two, the governor picks three, the courts pick another three. That obviously gives an advantage to whichever party controls the governorship (right now Democrats) but ultimately it’s those three court-appointed members who would seem to hold the true balance, since one party alone will never have more than five, not enough for a majority.
Of note for us: The Colorado commission is required to have at least one member from west of the Continental Divide. The law creating Virginia’s commission says that “in making its appointments, the appointing authorities shall give consideration to the racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity of the Commonwealth,” but that “consideration” hasn’t been honored. The commission has more men than women (10 to six). It also doesn’t have a single member from west of the Blue Ridge. (It did originally, but Marvin Gilliam of Bristol resigned and was replaced by Virginia Trost-Thornton of Lynchburg.)
There’s a lot about the way Virginia’s commission is set up that could be fixed – requiring true diversity (including, yes, geographic diversity) would be one way. Making it truly nonpartisan would be another, but that would require politicians – be they Democratic or Republican – taking a leap of faith that so far neither side has been willing to take.
Iowa has the most radical system: It turns to nonpartisan legislative staff to draw lines, without regard for political data or the home addresses of incumbents. The legislature then must take an up-or-down vote on whether to approve the map. If the legislature votes down the first map, the staffers produce a second. If the legislature votes down the second, then the staffers produce a third, although this one is subject to amendment – and at this point the legislature is free to draw its own map. However, if the legislature does so, that map must be approved by the state Supreme Court.
Since Iowa adopted this system, it’s gone through four redistricting cycles and is about to embark on a fifth. In 1981, it took three tries before the legislature approved a map, without amendment. In 1991, the legislature approved the first plan. In 2001, it approved the second plan. In 2011, the first plan again got approved. Under this system, the legislature – effectively, the majority party in the legislature – has never drawn its own maps and the courts have never had to get involved, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Iowa law also has a curious provision: All House districts must fit within Senate districts. That effectively means mapmakers draw 50 Senate districts, then split those in two for 100 House districts, which sounds entirely all too logical. (I do wonder what that means for minority representation, although Iowa may not be a fair test since the Black population there is less than 4%.)
That provision aside, who thinks the Iowa system would be a better method for Virginia?
Or who wants to go back to having the majority party have its way with the minority?
If the answer is neither one of those, then what is the best way to draw lines? Perhaps our Supreme Court will soon show us.
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.