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Partisan redistricting leaves few competitive legislative races, but civic-minded leaders are pressing for change.
Thursday, July 11, 2013
All 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates are up for election this fall, but 43 of them will be filled by candidates who have no opposition on the November ballot. As sad as that seems, it’s just the second time in the last decade that more than half of the state’s House races are contested.
Nearly two-thirds of House elections were one-candidate affairs in 2011, the same year the chamber’s Republican majority drew new district boundaries with an eye toward consolidating power in the state Capitol.
Partisan redistricting has diluted competition in Virginia’s legislative elections. Armed with census figures, precinct-level voting data and mapping software, the party in power can create tailor-made districts for its favored candidates and draw targeted minority members into political oblivion. It’s a ruthless art, and neither party has clean hands in its execution.
But, for several years, the House has stymied efforts to reform the politicized process. In each of the past seven legislative sessions, House subcommittees have killed redistricting reform measures that received broad, bipartisan support in the state Senate and backing from civic organizations and business leaders. Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed a bipartisan redistricting advisory committee prior to the 2011 reapportionment process, but key lawmakers in both parties ignored its work.
The General Assembly is not due to redraw districts again until 2021. Senate Republicans tried earlier this year to force a vast rewrite of district boundaries through the legislature, but House Speaker Bill Howell derailed the scheme by ruling it out of order. The need for redistricting reform has not waned. But some advocates worry there are fewer voices demanding change.
That’s why Charlottesville attorney Leigh Middleditch, a co-founder of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, is working to reassemble and expand a coalition of civic, business and political leaders to mount a campaign for a transparent, bipartisan redistricting process. If reforms require an amendment to the state constitution, advocates could have three or more years of work ahead of them.
Middleditch has met with leaders in the coalition that was active prior to the 2011 reapportionment and discussed strategies for lining up support from prominent business organizations, key legislators and the two major-party candidates for governor. He has talked with scholars about alternative redistricting models, including the Iowa model in which a nonpartisan agency draws districts based on population data and submits them to the legislature for a vote.
As a state senator, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli sponsored legislation patterned after the Iowa redistricting process. Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe has said he supports nonpartisan redistricting to encourage more mainstream voices in politics.
But, ultimately, advocates for reform have to change minds in the House. Legislators must understand that government serves best when voters choose their representatives, not when their representatives choose them.
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