Defeating SB 840

IMG_2729In 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?

Obenshain vs. Petersen on Party Registration

Senators Obenshain & Petersen from their respective Facebook pages
Senators Obenshain & Petersen from their respective Facebook pages

On Tuesday, SB 1060 came to the floor of the Virginia Senate.  Sponsored by Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham), this bill would bring the state voter registration by political party.  Doing so would create closed or semi-closed primaries where only declared members of a political party (and perhaps independents) could participate in a given party primary.

A fair number of liberty-minded Republicans and Libertarians have taken to Facebook to oppose SB 1060; some of us have contacted Senator Obenshain’s office as well.  I listed my objections to this idea in a piece last week.  In addition, both Deb Fitzgerald, the Chairman of the Harrisonburg Democratic Party, and I offered our concerns in Wednesday’s issue of the Daily News Record.

On the Senate floor, Senator Obenshain was the lead proponent of the bill while Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) was the most vocal opponent.  Senator Obenshain declared that by passing party registration, Virginia would conform to a majority of other states.  In addition, doing so would grant political parties the power to “choose who gets to participate in that…process.” As Senator Petersen stated, “there are two winners from this bill.  One is the Republican Party, the other one is the Democratic Party.  The parties are going to get so much more power if this bill passes.  But let me tell you who is going to lose.  It’s going to be ordinary people that just want to participate in elections.”  As Senator Petersen goes on to say, those who are outside the two major parties (such as Libertarians), or others who desire to switch political parties could find themselves completely excluded from the process.  Unfortunately, the Republican Party of Virginia has already moved in this direction, reviving the much reviled loyalty oath and changing their party plan last year by expelling members who participate in the nomination process of other parties.  In addition, Senators John Watkins (R-Powhatan) and Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax County) also explained why they would not support party registration.

The vote that followed was exceedingly close, 19-21, following mostly along party lines.  Every Republican voted in favor except Senators Watkins and Walter Stosch (R-Henrico) who joined with the Democrats to defeat SB 1060.

HB 1518, Delegate Steve Landes’ (R-Augusta) party registration bill also died yesterday as the Privilege and Elections subcommittee failed to recommend reporting it to the floor of the House of Delegates.

Below is the full debate on SB 1060.  Thanks to Blue Virginia for posting this video to YouTube.

Look At All The Funny Shapes!

As I continue my exploration into the world of gerrymandering, yesterday Virginia’s Division of Legislative Services released three suggested redistricting maps, one for the House of Delegates and two for the Virginia Senate.  In this article, we will be focusing on the Senate.

Here is our current map:

Current Map of Virginia Senate Districts

Is there significant gerrymandering in the system?  Absolutely.  Along the border with North Carolina, one can find bizarre images.  Going from west to east, something is a bit off with the 19th, 15th, and 18th districts.  And look at Creigh Deeds’ 25th.  It includes his home in Bath County next to the West Virginia border and then travels along a narrow corridor until it widens to pick up the liberal city of Charlottesville and the surrounding area about 100 miles away.  Is it only foolish hope to expect anything better?

Help is on the way!  As stated, there are two plans circulating, one Republican under Senator John Watkins from the 10th and one Democratic from Senator Janet Howell of the 32nd.  Let’s first tackle the Watkins plan.

Watkins Proposal

The first thing you might notice is that the number of your Senate district has likely changed.  I’m not sure why he would alter the numbering system.  It seems to me to be an unneeded annoyance.  More importantly, is there gerrymandering in the Watkins plan?  You bet!  First, he maintains a fair number of gerrymandered districts from the current map, such as the 37th.

The 37th (formerly numbered the 19th); with its trunk and reaching branches, it sort of looks like a tree.

Holy smokes!  A mushroom cloud!  Is someone launching nukes?  No, that’s only the proposed 18th district.

The 31st (formerly the 26th) may not seem too gerrymandered, but as a resident of the city of Harrisonburg, I can tell you that I’m not too happy about it.  If the district needed to grow, why wouldn’t it expand south to include most, if not all, of the remaining portion of Rockingham County?  Instead, it leaps over the Blue Ridge Mountains to pick up part of Culpeper County.  Why, oh, why?

Let’s move on to the Howell plan.  Is it better?

Howell Proposal

I’m grateful that Howell doesn’t modify the numbering scheme, but that alone doesn’t make it a worthy suggestion.

First off, you’ll note that Howell’s plan retains the heavily gerrymandered 25th.  In addition, sort of like the proposed 31st under Watkins, the 24th district sneaks across the Blue Ridge to include part of Culpeper County.  But there are other offending districts, too.

What’s going between the 20th and the 15th?  I used to draw similar shapes when I was bored in school.  What is the conversation here?  We need the city of Danville and the eastern part of Pittsylvania County in the 20th.  What about the western portion?  Stick it in the 15th!  While we are at it, let’s give the 15th a nice new hat by including Amherst County too.  And how much, if any, of the 19th district is within it’s current borders?

If you draw an eye around Lazy Oak Corner, one can easily see the 18th district as a monster looking to consume the western half of the 13th.  Just plain ugly.

I’d include more maps, but with each new image WordPress is taking more and more time to upload them.  Instead, I invite you to explore the redistricting website yourself. Chances are, you’ll have to download a new plugin to make the site work.

You should note that I haven’t even begun to consider party gains under these two proposals.  Nevertheless, I’d wager that the Watkins plan will result in more Republican victories while the Howell proposal will do likewise for the Democrats.  Both have their share of flaws and obvious gerrymandering and should be rejected…or at least heavily modified.  At the end of the day, I hope that the General Assembly refuses both of these plans and draws compact districts with not quite so many funny shapes.