Do Unto Others

Richmond Times-Dispatch Jan 17, 2007

It used to happen every 10 years. Virginia's Democratic legislators would produce a redistricting map; Virginia's Republican legislators would erupt in outrage at Democratic perfidy. The lines maximized Democratic potential while restraining Republican. Thanks in large part to gerrymandering, for many years the partisan lineup in the General Assembly did not accurately reflect the state's political sentiments. Democrats owed their dominance not to the attractiveness of their platform or to their reputation for probity but to their artful exploitation of redistricting schemes.

Republicans studied at the feet of masters. And when the GOP won belated legislative majorities, what did it do? Need any naif ask? The party of reform produced a gerrymander that must have made its teachers proud. As soon as Republicans won the power to draw the maps, they discovered the virtues of gerrymandering; as soon as Democrats lost the power to draw the maps, they discovered the virtues of reform.

In 1992 certain Republicans proposed a constitutional amendment to remove redistricting from the legislature and move it to an independent panel of noteworthy figures charged to create districts without regard to partisan advantage. The proposal's enthusiastic patrons included a back-bencher from Stafford by the name of Bill Howell. Fifteen years later Howell serves as speaker. Recently a committee in the august chamber he leads spiked a Democratic proposal to transfer redistricting to an independent panel. The only response is to smile -- at both sides of the aisle.

In an editorial supporting redistricting reform The Washington Post warns Republicans that Democrats, who have been chipping away at the GOP's Assembly numbers, could claim a majority in time for the redistricting based on the 2010 Census. Accepting a nonpartisan alternative to gerrymandering now could promote GOP interests in the long run. Although political analysts might question whether The Post has been consulting a Ouija board, many would not be surprised if Democrats took the State Senate this November. Republicans probably reached their zenith in the first election cycle after gerrymandering, thereby inflating their numbers and inflaming their already considerable egos.

The Post notes that in 2005, the year prior to the 2006 national donnybrook, only 12 of Virginia's 100 House races "were competitive enough to end with a margin of victory of less than 10 percentage points." In the 2003 Senate elections "just four of the 40 races were that close." If gerrymandering pleases incumbents and the ideological activists who benefit from a lack of mainstream competition, then it also denies any faction or side the standing to claim a legislative mandate. Gerrymanders render many Assembly elections all but meaningless.

Gov. Tim Kaine consistently has embraced redistricting reform. Too many other politicians in both parties let their immediate partisan concerns dictate their consciences. The electorate shares the blame. Redistricting works because voting habits are readily tracked and easy to predict. Decisive portions of the citizenry demand neither high standards nor philosophical coherence from their party's candidates. Yet while the public as a whole grows increasingly alienated from a process that puts politicians first, individuals have not risen against gerrymandering. Apathy has consequences