Press Club

Peter’s Take: The Case for Non-Partisan Redistricting in Va.

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column published on Tuesdays. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter Rousselot

While Virginia Democratic State Senator Henry Marsh was attending President Obama’s inauguration last month, Virginia Republican Senators ambushed their Democratic counterparts, and passed a far-reaching bill to redraw the lines of Virginia’s districts.

On Feb. 6, Republican House Speaker William Howell effectively killed this bill by ruling that the proposed massive Senate redistricting was not a germane amendment to the minor House redistricting bill to which it was attached. One can only imagine what concessions on other legislation were extracted from Virginia Democrats behind the scenes in exchange for Republicans “voluntarily” killing the Senate redistricting bill.

This 2013 Senate Republican redistricting ploy came only two years after Va. Senate Democrats and Va. House Republicans struck a deal in which Democrats allowed Republicans free rein to gerrymander the district lines in the House in exchange for allowing Democrats free rein to gerrymander the district lines in the Senate.

What all these deals have in common: hyper-partisanship by Republicans and Democrats, incumbent protection, and legislators choosing their voters—rather than the other way round. Other states have found better ways to do this, and Virginia should too.

John Miller, a Democratic Senator from Virginia’s 1st Senate District in Newport News, has proposed SB 742—a bill to create a bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Commission to draw the legislative district lines. Senator Miller’s bill certainly isn’t perfect—but it’s a big step up from the chaotic hyper-partisan system Virginia has now.

Even better would be legislation to create a non-partisan redistricting commission. Efforts to do that have been blocked repeatedly by Virginia Republican legislators, most recently when a House of Delegates subcommittee unanimously voted to table such a proposal by Democratic Delegate Betsy Carr of Richmond. Republican opponents of Carr’s proposal claimed there couldn’t be any such thing as a nonpartisan redistricting commission, conveniently ignoring that California and other states have one.

Since 2010, Virginia’s Democratic leaders consistently have been outwitted and outmaneuvered on redistricting by Virginia’s Republican leaders. As a result, the percentage of seats Democrats hold in both houses of the legislature has been in free fall. Democrats are gasping for breath. They need a new strategy because partisan redistricting isn’t working for them.

Virginia Democrats should disregard the conventional wisdom that “everybody does it”, “this is just the way it is,” and “nobody cares.” Instead, Virginia Democrats should dramatically raise the profile of nonpartisan redistricting, and fight for it on all fronts—legislative, judicial, and in the court of public opinion—until they succeed.

Peter Rousselot is a member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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