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Surovell: U.S. Supreme Court Should Overturn Partisan Redistricting

Virginia is represented by Democrats in all five statewide offices, has voted for a Democratic president three times, yet the Virginia House of Delegates has 66 Republicans and 34 Democrats.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the legality and constitutionality of the last redistricting of Virginia House of Delegates’ districts. The court’s decision could be monumental for all Virginia voters.

If I could fix one thing to make our government work better at every level, I would reform redistricting. Partisan redistricting abuse has been around since the beginning of American democracy. The term “gerrymander” originates from an 1812 attempt to draw districts favoring Massachusetts Governor Eldridge Gerry. To be clear, both parties do it, but in the last two decades, gerrymandering has become especially powerful for a few reasons.

First, America is more partisan. Due to multiple and growing sources of information available in today’s world, voters are able to self-select their news sources and are exposed to fewer alternative perspectives. This has driven up partisan identification and led to fewer voters who are willing to split their votes between political parties.
Second, and more importantly, computer-enabled mapping software has made it possible to draw districts that are finely crafted. When redistricting was done with index cards shifting precincts days because of ancillary effects and the need to recalculate and balance district populations.

Today, computing technology analyzes data by census block and in a few seconds can draw a comprehensive set of districts to elect a predicted number from a specific political party while maximizing majority-minority districts.

Over the last thirty years, these political considerations have caused district lines to constantly shift. Many areas constantly move between congressmen, senators and delegates every redistricting cycle. Changed lines leave people confused about their representatives. Census level analysis leaves precincts split requiring local governments to redraw precinct lines to avoid polling places with multiple ballots. This costs taxpayers money and leaves voters confused about their polling place.

Resulting districts are not communities of interest. The 36th Senate district that I represent stretches 60 miles across three counties and two area codes. The 1st Congressional District crosses the 36th District and stretches from Manassas to near Norfolk. Districts should minimize jurisdictional splits, use natural geographical boundaries like rivers and be truly compact and contiguous.

Together, this creates a series of hyper-partisan districts, both Republican and Democratic, which are so safe in general elections that they incentivize incumbents to focus on galvanizing primary voters’ support and not the broader electorate. This distorts public policy and increases partisanship when it is time to legislate.

There are two solutions to this problem. First, the legislature could give up redistricting power and transfer it to a bipartisan or nonpartisan commission. Incumbent legislators should not pick their voters. I have always supported nonpartisan redistricting and the Virginia State Senate has passed it several times, but it always dies in the hyper-gerrymandered House of Delegates. A legislative solution is highly unlikely.

The real opportunity to remedy this situation lies in the courts. Some courts have thrown out hyper gerrymandered seats using Voting Rights Act provisions. While valuable, this law is not a comprehensive tool because it is limited to preventing racial discrimination and does not address other problems with partisan redistricting. A Wisconsin federal court recently used an analysis based on the 1st and 14th Amendments to invalidate partisan redistricting by focusing on “wasted votes,” but did not recommend a remedy.

Courts can often better resolve issues that legislatures cannot. For example, in 1962, numerous legislatures, including Virginia’s, refused to redraw districts recognizing the booming suburban populations. The U.S. Supreme Court required Virginia and other states to draw districts based on actual population by adopting the “one man, one vote” rule of the Baker v. Carr case.

Today, it is similarly time for the Courts to restore democracy to our country and our Commonwealth. Hopefully, they will use the Virginia House of Delegates case argued this week to restore democracy to America.

It is an honor to serve as your state senator. If you have any feedback, you can always contact me at scott@scottsurovell.org.

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