The Fight Over Gerrymandering in Virginia

Apr 3, 2017

Are elections rigged? That’s the question before the courts in recent cases about gerrymandering, the process of carving up district lines for political advantage. Last week, a Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled against a group challenging eleven of Virginia's districts for disenfranchising black voters, and favoring Republicans.  Another case on the issue is still pending.  WMRA’s Jessie Knadler talked to redistricting reform proponents who are also trying to find a solution by working with state lawmakers.

Of the 122 Virginia legislators who ran for reelection in 2015, guess how many won. One hundred and twenty two. Not a single incumbent lost their bid for reelection. Coincidence? Hardly.  Critics say it’s mostly due to gerrymandering, in which legislators redraw district lines to ensure they’re packed with voters necessary to stay in power.

CHRIS GAVALER:  I’m sorry to quote the President but the elections are rigged.

Chris Gavaler is a member of the activist group 50 Ways Rockbridge in Lexington. Gerrymandering has become his number one rallying cry. Here he is speaking at a mock town hall in Vinton in February for 6th District Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte who has declined to meet in such a face-to-face forum for several years.

GAVALER:  A lot of folks start falling asleep when you say the word gerrymandering because it sounds complicated but this is actually the key to everything.  

He points out that Virginia votes purple, splitting votes pretty evenly between Republicans and Democrats, but that is not at all reflected in the state’s legislative makeup.

GAVALER:  Our House of Delegates has a super majority of Republicans two to one and they’ve done that strictly through gerrymandering. It is legal because they write the laws.

Both sides are equally guilty of gerrymandering, depending on who’s in power at the time of the U.S. Census, when districts are redrawn every decade. The last census was in 2010, and time is running out for a fix before the next one in 2020.  Virginia’s constitution requires that districts be “compact and contiguous.” That means their shape is supposed to resemble something close to rectangles and squares. But 11 districts in the Commonwealth look anything but. Some have been described as “a toilet bowl seat” and “a snake that’s been run over by a car.”

These crazy-looking districts are the focus of a lawsuit brought by the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021. Defendants in the case include the state Board of Elections and the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. The core issue, according to OneVirginia, is whether compactness means anything at all or just anything the legislature says it does.

BRIAN CANNON:  The only people we find who aren’t really gung ho on redistricting reform are the legislators themselves. It’s the batter wanting to call his own balls and strikes. We need to get an ump in there with clear rules.

Brian Cannon is an attorney and executive director of OneVirginia2021.

CANNON:  What you see when our legislative body ceases to represent us, which is where we are today, and cease to be able to function, which is where we are today, then we get executive orders proliferating that either one side of America or the other side of America hates. We get expansion of the presidency well beyond what our founders intended. And we get people who disengage and distrust our government. That’s a recipe for the demise of our Republic.

A lawyer for the House of Delegates in the case argued that the same criteria was used to draw the district boundaries as in previous years; therefore, it’s not gerrymandering.

Meanwhile, voters are pressing their Delegates to take a position on gerrymandering. Gavaler met with eight-term Republican Delegate Ben Cline of Rockbridge mid-March.

GAVALER:  He does seem open to what I think is a very clear fact….that currently the districts are unfair and the process of creating them is unfair. He told me that he saw a lot of room for improvement and that to me is a very good start.

They each gave the other homework.

GAVALER:  He asked me to come back next time with some specific proposals and I asked him to investigate what would it actually take to get a bill through the House of Delegates and actually onto the floor for a vote and passed into law.

In an email, Delegate Cline said he is always willing to meet with constituents. But he and Republican Dickie Bell of Highland County both declined to comment on redistricting. Republican Delegates Tony Wilt of Rockingham and Steve Landes of Albemarle did not respond to requests for comment.