In the myriad of bills offered in the 2015 General Assembly session, Senator John Watkins (R-Midlothian) proposed a piece of legislation regarding redistricting. As the legislative summary states, SB 840 “provides criteria for the General Assembly to observe in drawing districts, including respect for political boundaries, equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, contiguity, compactness, and communities of interest. Use of political data or election results is prohibited unless necessary to determine if racial or ethnic minorities can elect candidates of their choice.”
As it stands now, legislators in the General Assembly have the right to choose who they represent. Sounds a bit crazy, does it? In school we’re taught that voters choose their representatives, but, in Virginia, legislators can draw their own districts to include or exclude voters based upon past voting history, race, socioeconomic status, and a whole host of other factors.
As one such example, this year Senator Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) crafted SB 1237 which removed the rather heavily Democratic Georgetown precinct in Albemarle County from his district and exchanged it for the Republican friendly Stone Robinson precinct. Thinking back to Reeves’ small margin of victory in the 2011 election, one article in yesterday’s Washington Post argued that he made this move in order to bolster his re-election chances. Given the political ramifications of SB 1237 and the fact that Republicans currently enjoy a mere one seat majority in the Virginia Senate, all Republican senators voted for the measure while all Democrats (except one who did not vote) opposed it. If the tides were reversed, and the Democrats were in power would the Democrats have favored the bill and the Republicans have stood against it? Is the idea of right or wrong absolute? Or does it hinge upon who gains power by a given action? Is gerrymandering a integral part of the “Virginia Way“?
Watkins’ SB 840 would presumably help curtail gerrymandering, which includes the practice of carving up some counties into as many pieces as possible in order to achieve political advantage, as was done to Rockingham County in the 2011 redistricting. Perhaps surprisingly, the bill passed the Virginia Senate 38-0. However, yesterday the legislation was killed in the House subcommittee of elections in privileges and elections, squelched by Republican Delegates Mark Cole, Buddy Fowler, Steve Landes, and Margaret Ransone. What we need to know is why these four delegates killed this bill, which was passed unanimously by the Virginia Senate. Are there ramifications that could weaken the ability of Virginians to be fairly represented in the General Assembly? Or was it simply done to preserve legislators’ control of who can and cannot vote to either re-elect or replace these elected officials?