Three different state Senators represent the city of Richmond, Virginia. A resident on Monument Avenue could have voted for one, while their neighbor just down the street could have voted in a completely different district election.
“In my own district, I am barely in my district by three houses. If I walk to the end of my street, I’m out,” said Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Orange. “My neighbor can’t vote for me because they missed me by that much.”
Many other Virginia towns have the same problem as Richmond and Orange County. This political split between neighbors is usually intentional, and it has a name – it’s called gerrymandering.
In Virginia, political boundaries are redrawn every ten years, and the party in power gets to draw the map. Whichever party is in control at the time tends to draw lines to help them get re-elected – stacking voters in their favor in each district.
The political party may win re-election, but voters often lose. The next redistricting is scheduled for 2021, and Virginia lawmakers from both parties are rushing to make the redistricting process more fair.
Senate Bill 106, introduced by the Republican Senator from Roanoke, David Suetterlein, would provide criteria by which congressional and state legislative districts are to be drawn by requiring them to be more compact. This would include equal population, racial and ethnic fairness and respect for existing political boundaries. The bill has been approved by the Senate and will soon be heard by the House.
A similar bill, House Bill 1598 from Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, passed the House Committee on Privileges and Elections and will be voted on by the full House this week.
“The conversation is getting more detailed and intense,” said Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021. He added that there is more scrutiny, from both parties, as we approach the end of the session.
Virginia voters are in favor of redistricting reform; however, without putting pressure on lawmakers, it is unlikely that they’ll pass legislation that may work against them in the next election.
In an opinion piece featured by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, wrote that fixing Virginia‘s redistricting problem will not be easy.
“Both parties are guilty of gerrymandering in Virginia,” wrote Rozell. “Over the past couple of decades, as Republicans gained control in the legislature, they’ve used powerful new computer programs to weaponize voter data, carving out usually safe legislative havens for the GOP, despite a rising Democratic tide in the Old Dominion.”
For the last few years, Virginia Republicans have been accused of drawing districts in their favor. Since every statewide elected official is a Democrat, but the state Senate and House have a Republican majority, many Democrats were feeling cheated.
Cannon said Suetterlein’s bill is good, but it isn’t perfect. It is missing transparency in the process, and a third party to draw the district lines. However, legislation to create a transparent commission for redistricting has already been denied by the General Assembly this year.