For a few seconds last week, it appeared as if a bipartisan compromise was wiggling its way through the Virginia General Assembly. But the moment passed quickly and the usual unseemly squabbling is once again ascendant. The brief accord, reported Thursday in The Times-Dispatch, dealt with a most unlikely topic: the divisive battle over redistricting for the House of Delegates. The front-page story described a plan proposed by Republican Del. Chris Jones of Suffolk that had the public backing of four Democratic delegates and one Democratic senator. “We agreed that we have a legislative solution,” Jones said.
We agree with Jones. It is preferable for legislators, who are elected by the people, to draw their district lines instead of unelected judges. A federal court has ordered the House to redraw some of its districts by Oct. 30, or it will appoint someone to do it for them. This is not how a republic should work.
Not that the legislators are blameless. Both parties have engaged for decades in hyperpartisan redistricting schemes that tend to both bolster the strength of the party in charge and protect the seats of incumbents. We would prefer to see legislators grow up and perform one of their fundamental duties responsibly. If they continue to fail, the commonwealth should, as we have long advocated, explore ways to create a nonpartisan, independent commission to help them produce legislative districts that are fair, rational, and respectful of both local priorities and civil rights laws.
The current imbroglio arose when a federal court found improper racial gerrymandering in 11 of the House of Delegates’ 100 districts. Each of the 11 districts has population in which the majority of constituents are minorities.
Last week’s brief flirtation with compromise was encouraging — while it lasted — because it suggested a bipartisan group was finally prepared to meet the responsibility of legislators to draw districts that serve the public rather than narrow political interests — and in the process avoid an unwelcome judicial edict. “This bill does not advantage one side versus the other,” Jones said.
But by Thursday morning, House Democrats appeared to puncture the rising bipartisan balloon by issuing a press release that said the “characterization of the Jones map as bipartisan is misplaced at best. It remains to be seen whether any member of the House Democratic Caucus will support the Jones map.” Too bad.
And later that day the House Privileges and Elections Committee adopted Jones’ plan — but on a straight party vote, with 12 Republicans supporting the plan and 10 Democrats voting against it. A Democratic plan was shot down by an identical vote. While murmurings about bipartisan collaboration continued, the odds for making progress seemed to grow longer. Gov. Ralph Northam almost immediately dismissed the Jones plan as “a party-line vote to pass the majority’s partisan map.”
The governor’s reaction confirms suspicions that many Democrats would prefer to see redistricting lines drawn by the courts. We were hopeful, at least briefly, that some Democratic legislators might defend the institutional integrity of the General Assembly. But perhaps the times have passed when that kind of thing happens. Instead, we face the growing likelihood of court-administered districts.
That approach worked out quite well for Democrats earlier this year in Pennsylvania, where the state Supreme Court trashed a gerrymandered U.S. House map that favored Republicans and replaced it with a gerrymandered House map that favored Democrats. Remarkably, many of the good-government advocates who had been warning that partisan redistricting poses an existential threat to the republic suddenly fell silent, apparently pleased with the partisan turn of events.
Redistricting reform tended to be a back-burner issue, if anyone noticed it at all, until 2010, when Republicans won an advantage — for the first time in nearly a century — by wining control of dozens of governorships and state legislatures during the Obama administration. Suddenly, redistricting was a bigger threat to America’s electoral integrity than even the Russians.
We remain hopeful, but not optimistic, that the General Assembly will overcome its bipartisan inadequacies and restore its proper role in state government. More likely, the courts will intervene where they ought not — and we’ll see another small example of why choosing judges in America fosters political insanity.