The shenanigans convulsing the Virginia Redistricting Commission (VRC) were predicted by some critics, mostly based upon the dubious notion that a group of folks not quite independent from the state legislature, could set aside partisanship and agree upon a set of electoral boundaries for 140 legislators and 11 Congressfolk. Essentially, the task was to follow prescribed guidelines to draw district lines fairly equal in resident population. Unfortunately for the citizens of Virginia and unlike Mark Twain, the demise of the VRC due to partisan interests is not greatly exaggerated. Others may merely shrug, muttering about the Virginia Way.
The maps to be produced were three: one for state delegates; one for state senators; and one for congress. These were to endure for the next ten years until the next census. As draft sets of maps (by Republican and Democratic consultants to VRC) were produced and circulated to the public, one obvious question arose: Why are senate maps necessary since their election is determined by the same electorates as those of delegates?
Now, it may be true that determining whether your cup of tea is sweetened by one lump or two is a matter of choice. But the existence of a state Senate is not a matter of choice; it is ordained like the divine right of kings. Voters in any state electoral district are asked to select two representatives to the singular General Assembly for essentially an identical purpose – legislation. Senators and delegates do not debate one another concerning civic issues or present their individual ideas and commitments in the campaign for election.
Most of us have not been exposed to critical civics theory (CCT) in grade or high school to question the essence of the existence of a Senate chamber in a state legislature. They have been around since forever without a convincing theory of necessity, or origin for that matter. The predominant rationale for the existence of state Senates presents in available literature is that they are modelled after the bicameral Congress. Of course that explanation, if true, begs the question because state electorates, unlike that of interests in the federal system, do not reflect jurisdictional differences. A unitary electorate of state citizens would seem to be adequately served by a unitary legislative body.
Some few online sources also discussed the notions that state senates, with longer terms for members, mitigate against rash or ill-conceived legislative proposals, a theme that devolved from the Houses of Lords and Commons in merry Old England, and received some grace from the Founding Fathers. It is one reason they created the Electoral College as a measure to ensure against rabid rabble, popularly elected by the people, from dominating Congress and the Presidency. In effect, the Electoral College is a structural gerrymander, not very different from state bicameralism. This relationship receives some corroboration by way of observation and information.
For example, at present, the election of four U.S. Senators by their states, collectively cannot approximate the 158.4 million voting in the 2020 contest nor the total of 81.3 million garnered by President Biden. Nonetheless, Senators Schumer, McConnell, Manchin, and Sinema control the fate of proposed legislation that the majority of 331 million Americans favor. At another extreme at the state level, a few Senate chambers, e.g. Arizona, Pennsylvania, are spending taxpayer funds to promote conspiracy theories concerning the 2020 election results.
Nationally, data and information available on Ballotopedia sketches an outline of factual points that tend to confirm the outsized role of state senate chambers in the country’s politisphere. The site notes that there are 1,972 state senators and 5,411 state representatives in the 50 jurisdictions. Forty-nine are bicameral legislatures (Nebraska is the lone unicameral body since 1937). The partisan division of state senators is 1,091 Republican and 861 Democratic, which focuses these chambers as targets of opportunity for political partisanship.
Overall, 37 state chambers are Democratic and 61 Republican. At the same time, 18 state Senates are Democratic and 32 are Republican. The representative (or lower house) chambers are dramatically less partisan with 2,438 Democrats and 2,912 Republicans. Despite the lesser membership of state Senates, the bicameral structure amplifies partisan dominance resulting in 30 states with a Republican-dominated legislature versus 18 for Democrats. Model legislative factories such as ALEC and the Heritage Foundation take advantage of these dynamics to introduce their experiments within a state. Sensitive to states as “laboratories of democracy,” these groups function as the science teacher with memberships or advisors that are selected from state legislatures.
Even if the adage about making legislation and sausages is true, it remains a challenge to understand why two state legislative chambers are added to the production process, each requiring (or demanding) the approval of the other to adopt a proposed bill. In effect, state senators and legislators elected by identical constituencies are engaged in conflict exacerbated by the very structure within which they serve the same purpose. Political party identification is not necessarily relevant to the success of the contestants or the legislation itself.
The impending failure of the VRC in the Commonwealth is certain to produce disappointment and head-shaking among the voters. Social scientists characterize this condition as anomie. In the political realm, this means a loss of faith in institutions, an important element that motivated the rise of the Tea Party. No argument is offered that the Senate chamber of the Virginia General Assembly is a cause of the VRC’s lethal gridlock. However, were voters offered a choice to eliminate the Senate, i.e. remove the 40 endemic or structural reasons limiting more equitable representation, such might be attractive.
According to the 2020 census, Virginia’s 8,631,393 residents translates into 86,631 per state delegate. Without a Senate, the number of delegates could be doubled, creating a ratio of 43,315 residents to one delegate. The U.S .Constitution envisioned 30,000 per House member. Increasing the number of delegates to 200 would bolster the representative caucus in the southern counties of the Old Dominion perhaps assuaging the effects of the outmigration of population and signaling a brighter future.
This possibility is achievable with any of the set of maps produced by VRC ( or the Supreme Court as the case may be) and could be maintained until 2030. Increasing the term of delegates from two to three or four years, accompanied by term limits, acknowledges the need for experienced legislators and defines a sunset goal for them to meet commitments to the public.
It is a fact that the size of the cup also defines the sweetness of the tea whether one lump or two. At the same time, one legislative chamber can be sweeter in any size state.
Michael Fruitman and Jim McCarthy are co-editors of www.VoxFairfax.com