Republicans have two major reasons to want real redistricting reform.
In Maryland, where I own a home healthcare business, redistricting reform is a Republican issue – but in Virginia where lived and worked for years as the state director of Americans for Prosperity, redistricting reform is seen as a Democratic issue.
That’s odd because just as many Democrats voted for the districts Virginians live under today as did Republicans. It was a bipartisan gerrymander designed to protect incumbents.
Either way, what’s clear is that voters don’t want politicians rigging the maps in their favor.
As a kid, I remember when my then-Congressman, George Allen from Albemarle County was put into Rep. Tom Bliley’s district by Democrats who laughed at eliminating a Republican Congressman in such a way.
Allen, of course, had the last laugh, but the practice of using unfairly drawn district lines to personally punish opponents was on full display. Incumbent legislators draw lines to benefit friends and punish foes, often producing absurdly shaped and non-cohesive districts in the process.
Right now in Virginia we have two competing plans for redistricting reform – one that passed the Senate (40-0) and one that passed the House (party line, 51-48). Both would amend the state constitution to cement this reform in place before 2021. Both would create some sort of commission to draw the maps with legislative approval.
When I’m looking at the reasons why we, as Republicans, should be for redistricting reform in Virginia, I’ve got a long list. We need government to operate openly and honestly. We don’t want our government having too much power and the ability to draw your own districts is an incredible power that insulates them from the grassroots. We need a government that’s owned by the people, not the politicians.
But beyond that, Republicans have two major reasons to want real redistricting reform.
First, we don’t want Democrats to gerrymander us into oblivion in 2021. I know that there’s a dumpster fire going on at the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General’s level. Someone’s bound to end up resigning at some point. But they could easily do so in a way that still leaves us with a Democratic Governor for 2021. This along with the new maps the courts are imposing on the House of Delegates makes our chances at being in control of any branch of government in Virginia in 2021 less than 50%. So whatever reform passes, it has to level the playing field so that Republicans don’t get screwed if we end up in the minority in 2021. Right now the only proposal that does that is the Senate plan.
Second, and this is perhaps the most important, we need anti-gerrymandering language in whatever the final proposal is. Currently it’s not in either the House or Senate versions. Why do we need such language? See above for what happened to George Allen when he was in Congress. That should never happen to any person of either party.
It’s despicable that Democrats did it in the 1990’s and despicable that our party has done it when given the chance, too. Virginians deserve better than that.
When I study the Senate plan for reform and the House plan for reform, it’s clear to me that the Senate plan has the better protections that we need right now. It would stop a Democratic gerrymander in 2021. It would minimize the chance (though not completely eliminate it) that what happened to George Allen would happen other Republicans like our four remaining congressman. Four could become two.
There is one other reason that Republicans who are currently doubting the need for such a commission should stop doubting. Recent maps drawn by House Republican insiders, along with many House Democrats, have been ruled a racial gerrymander. It seems that there are some in the Republican caucus who think the Supreme Court is going to ride to their rescue. I have a word of advice: don’t gamble.
It is unlikely anyone is coming to rescue the maps after what SCOTUS has already said about it in March 2017. This Fall, if the Democrats swing the three seats they need to take control of the General Assembly, our party will almost certainly be the recipient of the same courtesy Maryland Democrats showed their Republicans and the results will be dreary.
The time to seek a fair and transparent compromise on redistricting is now. It’s not just good politics; it’s good government.
Ben Marchi is the former state director for Americans For Prosperity Virginia from 2007 to 2011.