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Unique Time

June 24, 2016

A. E. Dick Howard, constitutional scholar and primary author of Virginia’s revised Constitution of 1971, is hardly a man, we believe, given to overstatement. Writing for the December 2013 edition of Virginia Business. Dr. Howard said, “If the mandate of one-person-one-vote was the generational issue of the 1960s, then eliminating political gerrymandering may be the issue of our time.”

Brian Cannon, executive director of the statewide initiative — OneVirginia2021 — dedicated to said “elimination,” affirms that assessment. Now, Mr. Cannon told us earlier this week, is “a unique time” to see this goal realized. Though Virginia has long been “fertile ground” for the practice of gerrymandering — i.e., the drawing of political boundaries to serve political purposes, or “parties rather than people” — that landscape is changing. And not just here in the Old Dominion, but the nation over.

Last November, for instance, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved Issue 1, a redistricting overhaul that creates a bipartisan commission charged with drawing “compact” General Assembly districts. Flush with victory, reformers now want the new rules applied to congressional districts as well.

And, over the last two years, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld not just the legitimacy of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, established by ballot initiative, but also the redistricting plan fashioned by the commission. The latter ruling, handed down in April, was unanimous.

Thus, reformers clearly have the wind at their backs, though here in Virginia, resistance, grounded in self-interest, has been stiff. The modus operandi — even in a divided General Assembly — has sustained the status quo. Politicians in both bodies — Republicans in the House, Democrats in the Senate — draw political boundaries to their benefit and then, in a fit of bipartisanship lamentably gone wrong — approve each other’s respective plans.

 

 

As such, a more intense, focused reform strategy — something more, Mr. Cannon says, than merely presenting the case on its merits and expecting results — is of the essence. And this OneVirginia2001 has sought to implement. Mr. Cannon calls the group’s three-pronged strategy — litigation, legislation, and education — “wider and deeper” than reform efforts past.

 

After a specially called legislative session, convened last summer to address redistricting, produced nothing but a protracted argument on another issue — Gov. McAuliffe’s appointment of Judge Jane Marum Roush to the state Supreme Court — OneVirginia2001 filed a lawsuit over 11 legislative districts (six Democratic, five Republican) it said did not meet constitutional standards for compactness.

The organization did its homework, avoiding mistakes made two decades ago by plaintiffs in a similar lawsuit, in which myriad plaints were thrown against the wall in the hope one might stick and gain them desired succor. All this did, Mr. Cannon says, was “muddy things up” — to the point that “no definition of compactness emerged.”

OneVirginia2021 has resolved to “make the equation a lot clearer,” Mr. Cannon says. Its legal team in the continuing lawsuit, led by former GOP gubernatorial candidate Wyatt Durrette, is posing “basic questions” about the “proper application” of the “compactness requirement” written into the state Constitution. The goal: To elevate this provision over political considerations in the drawing of legislative boundaries for both Congress and the General Assembly.

On the legislative front, two local politicians have played prominent roles in advancing this cause. In a Senate that, in the most recent Assembly session, demonstrated some eagerness for reform, the 27th District’s Jill Holtzman Vogel introduced a measure restricting the use of partisan criteria in the drawing of districts. In the more recalcitrant House, Mr. Cannon says, 15th District Del. Randy Minchew has proven himself a key breakout vote in moving Senate legislation through the byzantine committee structure. But there’s more work to be done on this score, largely because more House Republicans like Mr. Minchew need to come on board.

Thus, if OneVirginia2021 is to realize its worthy aims, the 2017 session will be pivotal. In addition to pursuing bills to make political gerrymandering illegal, the organization hopes to see a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission presented for a first read. The time frame is critical: Before such an amendment can be put before the voters in referendum, it must be passed by both Assembly chambers in consecutive sessions, with an intervening election.

So, as former coach George Allen once said of his Redskins, “The future (for OneVirginia2021) is now.” That is, if it wishes to prevent another round of redistricting — read: gerrymandering — under the existing ground rules.