By Aaron Barden
There was a lizard on the floor of the James City County (JCC) government building’s Board of Supervisors meeting hall on August 8th, 2017. I was there to watch the board consider OneVirginia2021’s resolution, which in most cases does little more than declare support for non-partisan redistricting. But JCC’s resolution was different. The resolution had a paragraph tacked to the end that would have changed the County’s local redistricting procedure from a citizen board with no criteria-based restrictions (preventing use of party, no incumbency protection, etc.) to a reliance on the Board’s staff to draw the lines with such restrictions.
Going in, I honestly was not aware of the extra paragraph at the end, so I assumed that the resolution would go by with not much issue. I knew the General Assembly used certain procedures to sweep redistricting reform aside without much debate, but I had not expected that vitriol towards reform to exist at the county level. The debate continued for about 40 minutes and ended with the bill losing 3-2.
But what does James City County have to do with Virginia (at-large) or Iowa? Well, the reliance upon legislative staff is exactly how Iowa draws its district lines.
In Iowa, the process is mainly in the hands of the Legislative Services Agency (LSA), which is its version of Virginia’s Division of Legislative Services (DLS) and serves to apprise legislators of a range of issues in a non-partisan manner. Following a decennial census, however, the LSA uses its expertise in non-partisanship to draw lines in accordance with the state’s redistricting criteria: equal population, the Voting Rights Act, compactness, contiguousness, county and city boundaries, and no favoritism on basis of party, incumbency, or any other person or group. Where these criteria give rise to discretionary concerns, the LSA is given the assistance of the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission, consisting of four people appointed by the majority and minority leaders of the two major parties in each house of the legislature who must be eligible electors, cannot hold public or political party office, and cannot be related to or employed by a member of the state legislature or Congress or employed directly by the same. The fifth member of the commission is elected by the other four. LSA, with the help of the advisory commission, then draws lines to present to the legislature and has three attempts to do so. After three failed attempts, the legislature may draw its own lines. Since 1980, the legislature has yet to disapprove a map drawn by the LSA or exercise its right to repeal or revise one.
According to David Daley’s book Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, he discusses what really makes Iowa “the redistricting unicorn.” In interviews with numerous people involved or affected by the process (i.e. the legislators), Daley finds that the process has an impressive amount of trust within and respect for the redistricting process. So much so, that the current chair wholeheartedly believes that his predecessor will respect the process just as much as he does. Daley writes of his skepticism because “[a] commission without Iowa trust is just partisanship under a different name.”
Virginia does not have Iowa trust. The districting procedure created by the Constitution of Virginia involves the legislature drawing the lines according to traditional criteria and then the legislators who drew their own districts vote on them. As I mentioned before, the General Assembly’s House of Delegates Privileges & Election Committee is particularly good at keeping the status quo in place, repeatedly using procedures to kill non-partisan redistricting reform. In the 2017 General Assembly session, the Privileges & Elections committee bundled a number of bills that would have implemented both criteria-based and independent-commission-based measures among a wide variety of other issues and then moved to kill that bundle, even though the measures were significantly different from one another. And then as James City County showed, the skepticism towards non-partisan redistricting on the statewide level is pervasive enough to touch the county level government.
Additionally, the public lacks trust in the system with a January 2015 poll by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy showing that, of those familiar with the redistricting process in Virginia, 49% of respondents viewed it as unfair and 41% viewing it as fair. While no Virginia-specific polls have taken place regarding fairness in redistricting, a national poll done by Public Policy Polling in July 2017 showed that 60% of respondents believed that the process was unfair and 16% viewed it as fair. It is not a big logical leap to conjecture that the public opinion in Virginia would track that of the nation at-large.
Finally, three other differences between Iowa and other states, including Virginia. The first, noted by Daley in his book, is that Iowa is incredibly homogeneous with a 91% white population. Contrastingly, Virginia has a 70% white population with a 19.8% black population and 9% Latino population, giving rise to line-drawing obligations under the Voting Rights Act. The second issue is that Virginia’s larger population provides it with eleven congressional districts as opposed to Iowa’s four. The third difference is that Iowa is essentially a square whereas Virginia is a very irregular shape. Taken together with the lack of trust, the Virginia redistricting process is simply more complicated by virtue of these differences and subject to far more skepticism and partisan undermining than Iowa’s.
The lizard on the floor of the James City County Government building was a reminder that the specter of Elbridge Gerry is still alive and well in the Commonwealth rather than on the brink of turning into a unicorn.