Redistricting Reform Part 1:
Where We Begin
Before we begin, a word about me: I’m a political professional. I run my own company, and my career has been split between political campaigns and advocacy organizations. Unlike most people writing on this blog, I’m not a lawyer or a law student or a professor. And while I have a pretty strong understanding of this issue, my review of relevant case law may seem less than expert – my apologies.
So why would I be writing about redistricting reform? Simple: A few years ago, I was approached to manage an effort to reform Virginia’s redistricting process. It is that experience, as Executive Director of the Virginia Redistricting Coalition, which gives me my particular knowledge on the topic. As someone who had never previously worked on the issue, I was now to run an organization, develop legislation, devise a legislative strategy, and build a coalition around this topic. Now, I’d done all of these things before, to some extent, in other positions. Having previously cofounded and run a non-profit advocacy organization, I knew what I was getting into.
But to get all that done in 6 months, well that’s a bit more difficult. So I bring to this discussion the benefit of a crash course in redistricting, reform, and Virginia’s brand of the process. This blog series will be about what I learned while I ran this organization and advocated for redistricting reform.
Welcome to the Wild West
Let’s begin where I started when I got the job: The Constitution of Virginia, Article II, Section 6 (emphasis added):
Members of the House of Representatives of the United States and members of the Senate and of the House of Delegates of the General Assembly shall be elected from electoral districts established by the General Assembly. Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district. The General Assembly shall reapportion the Commonwealth into electoral districts in accordance with this section in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter.
Any such decennial reapportionment law shall take effect immediately and not be subject to the limitations contained in Article IV, Section 13, of this Constitution.
(Note: Article IV, Section 13 deals with enactment dates of new laws)
The key words are in bold. In Virginia, reapportionment is handled as if it were any other law. Let that one sink in: Any other law. There is no special process or rules – it’s just a bill. A bill subject to the same considerations, manipulations, and political power plays that legislation falls prey to.
The district delineation law falls under the jurisdiction of the Privileges and Elections committees of both the state House and Senate. This is the committee, in both houses, that generally deals with voting issues, voting reforms, constitutional amendments, and questions about reforming the redistricting process. So, yes, if you want to reform redistricting in Virginia, you have to get the committee with the most power in the process to give up that power.
How this works in the real world
So from those simple items, we get a more complex real world process. I spent a weeks just researching the process as it occurred in 2001, talking to those who were involved, and trying to get a clear idea of how it really works as opposed to how it is supposed to work.
First, the Census. In 2010, everyone will be counted. That data will be collected by the Census Bureau into neat computerized GIS files. Because Virginia and New Jersey have off-year elections, they are given priority to receive their data so that maps can be draw and districts created in time for the November (2011) elections. Usually, this means the data arrives from Census around March of 2011. By March, however, the General Assembly is (usually) out of session. So a special session is called.
Second, the maps are drawn in secret. The biggest determiner of how redistricting works in Virginia is simple: What party controls what House and the Governor’s office. The Governor has veto power, so in the case of a divided House and Senate, the Governor’s office is very important for determining the political outcome. The people who technically who run this process are the members of the Joint Reapportionment Committee, but as with most legislative bodies, the staff and lobbyists have more influence than any official document would admit.
As of January, 2010, Republicans will control the Governor’s office and the House of Delegates, while Democrats control the State Senate. At this point, each house’s majority party will sit down with consultants and computers. They will review demographic data, previous election outcomes, the home addresses of incumbents, and come up with a map that benefits their party the most and hurts the other party the most. They’ll do things like draw a member out of her district. Or pull the high-performing precincts away from a member in a swing district. In short, they will choose which voters they want voting for them.
This is also where the Governor becomes important. Because the Governor has a veto, he can help his party’s map in the house where his party isn’t in the majority. At this point, the congressional delegation will get involved as well, working with the national party offices, and give their own maps to the House and Senate majority parties for congressional districts. There’s lots of horse trading, haggling, backroom dealing, and number crunching. And it takes a while. In divided government, the balance will always be between partisanship (Delegates standing up for their fellow Republicans in the Senate) and self-preservation (Cutting a deal that lets the Republican House draw their map and the Democratic Senate draw theirs).
All of that happens behind closed doors. There is no real public input, no transparency, nada. Some legislators will tell you that they hold extensive public hearings on district lines. And they do hold hearings. But the hearings don’t matter. Pardon my cynicism, but they’re mostly a show, in the same way most congressional hearings are a show – more performance than deliberation.
Third, the legislature passes the maps, the Governor signs them. The Privileges and Elections committees will have been stacked with hardline partisans on the majority side this year, to ensure that there’s no bipartisan funny business. Competing map bills, if they are introduced, will either never be heard, or sent to a subcommittee to die. The conclusion will be pre-ordained because the deal had already been worked out. At this point, Editorial Boards complain that the entire process was done in secret. But it won’t matter because the deal has already been cut.
Fourth, the maps are sent to the Department of Justice for approval. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Tricky, tricky. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires that states with a bad record of minority voting participating submit their district maps to the Department of Justice for a review called “pre-clearance.” Virginia is one of those states. We’ll go into the details of DOJ clearance in the future, but we’ll leave it at the fact that DOJ can interrupt the process at this point.
Finally, the maps go into effect. In time for the November elections of the State House of Delegates (here and here) and State Senate (here and here). Congressional maps can, and generally do, come a bit later (here).
Let’s summarize. Every 10 years, the legislature of Virginia gets to decide which voters they want to represent them. And using some fast computers and lots of data, they have become very good at predicting how those voters will vote. So they craft for themselves the districts they want. This is a process done in secret. What matters in this process is not where you live or what your community looks like, but which party happens to control the General Assembly at that time.
Is Virginia weird?
States handle redistricting very differently. There is very little federal guidance on how they should run the redistricting process, but lots of case law on what the outcome of that process should look like. Depending on how you count it, about 15 states have some sort of bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting process. Iowa is often cited as the “best” example – they have a non-partisan commission. The other end of the spectrum is probably Texas’ mid-decade redistricting fiasco.
Next, Part II: We’ll review the questions of representation that come up with you start talking about how the process of redistricting should work. And that will be your primer for part III, where we look at the practical outcome of partisan redistricting.
David Solimini is a political strategist and the owner of ADco Creative Productions. 2007-2008 he was the Executive Director of the Virginia Redistricting Coalition. He is currently the Media Director of the Truman National Security Project. Solimini holds a BA from the College of William & Mary. He can be reached at email@example.com.