If Virginia lawmakers think they can rest on their laurels after passing an insignificant change to redistricting law, they should think again.
State Sen. David Suetterlein’s SB 106 is fine as far as it goes — which is almost nowhere. In essence, it requires congressional and General Assembly districts to be compact. Suetterlein says he hopes the bill becomes law so the next redistricting will feature “common-sense districts instead of gerrymandered districts.”
Please. Compactness might marginally reduce the degree of a gerrymander, but districts can be compact and gerrymandered at the same time. This is not real redistricting reform. If voters aren’t careful, it could even become an excuse not to enact real reform.
What would real reform look like? California offers one example: It has an independent commission with members from both political parties, as well as no party. The commission conducts its business in public at all times, and with public input. Legislators are forbidden to have contact with the commissioners.
That has not taken politics out of the process entirely. Critics argue that the California commission leans Democratic. And the left-wing ProPublica has reported that California Democrats manipulated the process by sending party hacks to pretend they represented ordinary citizen groups when they testified before the commission. In one case Democrats even “invented a local group to advocate for the Democrats’ map.”
Nevertheless, the commission narrowed the average point spread in both California Assembly and U.S. House races — rendering them more competitive. And Sean Trende, writing at Real Clear Politics, finds that a map drawn by the Democrat-controlled legislature “would be much worse for Republicans than what the current commission’s lines look like.”
Any real redistricting bill in Virginia should include a provision like that in Senate Joint Resolution 25, a constitutional amendment sponsored by Emmett Hanger. It not only stipulates that “no district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring” any party, incumbent, or candidate, it also forbids the use of any “political data, including address of incumbent legislators ... political affilations of voters, or previous election results” during the redistricting process.
To take effect after the 2020 census, such a measure will have to pass the Assembly in 2019 — which means the time to start pushing for it is now.