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The Right Note: Lines Are Drawn

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Much has been made of the recent Supreme Court decision that said partisan redistricting is not a constitutional question for the federal courts. Ultimately, the justices opted not to force federal trial and appellate judges to review every map ever produced simply because the “losers” didn’t like the outcome.

Reformers were up in arms. How could the Supreme Court arrive at such a decision?

There is a larger question of how to arrive at a clear test as to what maps were too partisan? Some reformers have suggested that maps should produce roughly the same number of Congressional districts as if they were allocated proportionally on a statewide vote. Another suggestion is that states draw as many competitive seats, drawn to be 50/50 in partisan breakdown, as possible.

Either of these would almost certainly still produce countless odd-shaped districts that break up communities of interest in order to achieve the stated goal. This is primarily because Democrats tend to be more heavily concentrated in urban areas. The latter would tend to produce regular swings back and forth based on the changing political environment, and maybe some would say that’s a good thing.

Ultimately these questions will now play out in state legislatures and state courts.

If the proportionality standard were implemented, it would be good news for Congressional Democrats in Texas, Ohio and Michigan. At the same time, it would also be good news for Congressional Republicans in California, Maryland, Illinois, and to a lesser extent, Virginia. And, it might be good news for incumbents who would sit in districts designed to achieve a certain partisan outcome.

One study suggests that while Republicans were overperforming nationally for much of the past decade, that Democrats now currently hold the exact number of seats they should hold based on the proportional national vote. In other words, despite what many experts believed was a Republican gerrymandering advantage, Democrats still won control of the U.S. House.

This tends to happen over time. In Virginia, Democrats drew their preferred map in the State Senate after the last Census only to see Republicans win control. Republicans drew their preferred map in the House, only to see Democrats come within drawing the name out of a bowl of a 50/50 split in 2017.

This year, Virginia passed a constitutional amendment to implement a 16-member commission made up of lawmakers and citizens to draw maps in the future. The measure would need to be passed again by the General Assembly in 2020 before heading to voters for approval.

In California, the Independent Commission favored by Republicans produced maps that favored Democrats. According to Pro Publica, Democrats deployed an aggressive effort to influence the commission to draw maps that aligned with their interests. According to one report, party operatives invented a local interest group to push for the Democrats’ favored map.

In other words, you cannot necessarily trust an “Independent Commission” to produce independent results. And if you think the parties would not look for any way to game the system in Virginia, you would be fooling yourself. 

Maybe the answer is to create a computer algorithm that puts some weight on partisan “fairness” while favoring compactness and communities of interest? Then again, a human still has to write the algorithm.

Mark Kelly is a 19-year Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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