One of the most unsightly of all the sausage making that is the legislative process is redistricting. Every 10 years, all 140 General Assembly districts, as well as Virginia’s Congressional districts, must be redrawn to reflect population shifts as accounted for in the census. The districts can get pretty contorted, to say the least, with compactness and communities of interest giving way to snake-like shapes that slither from one end of the state to another (not that Virginia is an exception, either).
Complicating matters is that whatever the General Assembly and governor agree to must be approved by the Justice Department because Virginia falls under the Voting Rights Act. But there are several rare dynamics at play this year. For one, it’s the first time since Reconstruction that opposite parties control the two chambers during a redistricting year. As each chamber has prerogative over its districts, traditionally they don’t interfere with each other’s plan. However, with Governor Bob McDonnell as a GOP backstop to Senate Democrat mischief, Senate Dems laid down the law: Instead of two bills this year, anything coming from the House would be attached to the Senate’s bill as a way of safeguarding its new districts from the governor’s veto or amendments. If not, Senate Dems promised stalemate on the House plan. Interestingly, in this interview (read transcript) on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU-FM in March, Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35, Springfield) was asked what the governor’s role was in redistricting and he replied, “sign or amend” the bill. No mention of the veto option.
Here’s more from the senator that day (hear audio), starting partisan, then trying to soften:
Well, if I lose a few seats as a result of redistricting, and I’m in the majority, I’m not doing a very good job. … And I would simply say, well, you know, our goal is to make the Democratic districts, particularly the marginal ones, a little bit better than they are now. I’m not greedy. I’m not trying to put all the Republicans out of business by any stretch. They didn’t do that to us 10 years ago. And we’re not gonna do that to them.
So much for that. Governor McDonnell vetoed the bill sent to him last week anyway, primarily because of the dysfunctional and obscenely drawn Senate districts that drew fire from groups as varied as Prince William County to the NAACP (see Jenifer Buske at the Washington Post Virginia Politics Blog). While the House plan passed with all but 10 Democrat votes, the Senate plan — which could add up to three Democrat seats per the Richmond Times-Dispatch — was divided on party lines, 22-18. No wonder. None of this was a surprise.
More dynamics: While there is time to settle the Congressional districts because those elections are not until next year, all 140 General Assembly seats are up this year. Already, primaries have been pushed back to August to accommodate the readjusted districts. Candidates filing to run still don’t know where they are running. Even if the parties and governor come to an agreement, there’s this: This is the first redistricting since the Voting Rights Act with a Democrat president. Who knows what changes his Justice Department might demand. If all of this can’t be wrapped up by a time certain, the entire process for both chambers gets transferred to judges.
But today there is hope. After he bragged that he wouldn’t change “a dot or a comma,” declared with bravado he wouldn’t “surrender” and dared the governor to issue a second veto (Ros Helderman at the Post) for fear of sending it to the unelected judiciary, Senator Saslaw backed down. Now, Senators Janet Howell (D-32, Fairfax) and Jill Vogel (R-27, Winchester) are leading a bipartisan working group to come up with a new plan (the Post). But is it false hope? Senator Howell echoed Senator Saslaw’s original sentiments: “We won’t negotiate away our majority.” But then Senator Saslaw told the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, “There are some of us who are going to try to . . . get things worked out in an amicable fashion. We’re determined to try to make the process work right.” The whiplash changes in attitude are enough to require psychological testing. More on that in a second.
Senator Howell needs to understand that she doesn’t determine the majority. If she did, there would be no need for elections. Voters determine majorities. One wonders what she and Senator Saslaw fear. Only three years ago, liberals heralded Virginia as blue. The existing Senate districts were good enough to flip a one-time 24-16 GOP majority to 22-18 Democrat. If Senate Democrats are so confident in their ideas and performance the last four years as the majority, what’s with the gerrymandering that has split some localities into as many as eight districts?
Grossed out yet by the sausage making? Then you may or may not want to take this little test based on Senator Howell’s vetoed plan. The districts’ shapes are so contorted one might think they are ink blots on a Rorschach test. Click here to take the Is It Howell Or Rorschach? test. Disclaimer: Score does not correlate to actual state of mental health, but may indicate the insecurity of some Senate Democrats.