I have repeatedly advocated nonpartisan redistricting. I believe that our current redistricting system is at the heart of political gridlock in Washington and Richmond. Thanks to power software, today politicians pick their voters instead of voters picking their politicians. We also have a system designed to minimize public input and maximize incumbent protection. However, in January, a federal judge will have an unprecedented opportunity in Virginia.
Most people wouldn't know it, but the General Assembly is actually still in special session, but just in recess while we "consider" redistricting. The Governor signed legislation redistricting the General Assembly on April 29, 2011, but Congressional redistricting was never completed.
The last time we were actually physically in the State Capitol for a session was July 29, 2011. The House and Senate had previously approved competing bills regarding redistricting. On July 29, 2011, neither party had reached an agreement. Nothing was passed. We still sit today starting each other down with lame duck members of each chamber in office until January 6, 2012.
The House of Delegates approved legislation that was effectively proposed by the incumbent congressmen ("the Republican Plan"). Most observers believe it will preserve the status quo in Virginia. It contained some strange creatures - e.g. the Fifth Congressional District stretched from I-66 to the North Carolina border.
The Senate proposed a plan ("the Senate Democrats Plan") creates a "minority influence district" in the Richmond suburbs. Most observers believe it would endanger Congressman Randy Forbes. I have not carefully analyzed them, but it is my understanding that competitive seats are largely absent from both plans.
In terms of the 44th Delegate District, both plans would put the entire 44th District inside the 8th Congressional District. If you would like to see the plans, you can view them on the Division of Legislative Services Redistricting Website which you can access through Google or my blog.
Article II, Section 6 of The Constitution of Virginia requires redistricting to occur "in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter." The Constitution does not state what happens if it does not happen "in the year 2011." From my point of view it is an unprecedented opportunity.
The following is expected. First, we will return to Richmond on January 6, 2012 and all be sworn in. Then, the Senate will meet to approve its rules and committees and will deadlock 20-20 on "organizing" themselves. The Lieutenant Governor will vote to break the tie and give the Republicans a working majority in the Senate. The Democrats will complain and say that is illegal.
The House and Senate will then pass the Republican Plan and the Governor will promptly sign it. All that will occur in about ten days. Then, it will go to court and a federal judge will then need to rule:
1. Whether to adopt the Republican Plan (assuming it meets the requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965); or
2. Whether to have a three-judge panel adopt its own plan.
From my point of view, this is an unprecedented opportunity. Many of us have endorsed the concept of non-partisan redistricting. Although the State Senate has passed legislation and it was nominally endorsed by Governor McDonnell during his campaign, it has died every year committee. This situation presents an opportunity for a federal judge to actually do congressional redistricting on a non-partisan basis.
The work has already been done. Several Virginia colleges held The Virginia Redistricting Competition last fall designed to produce maps created to maximize competition or simply focus upon non-political criteria. Fifty-five teams of students submitted entiries. Four different teams were given awards for the Congressional District maps. (They don't look anything like the present maps).
Governor McDonnell also created a Bipartisan Redistricting Commission. It even included a Mount Vernonite - Former State Board of Elections Chairman Jean Jensen. The produced three possible congressional district maps.
The bottom line is that the work has been done. If the Court wants to take a step that was truly in Virginia's best interest, they should reject the legislatures' partisan self-interested work product and adopt one of the independent proposals. That is the only action that would be in Virginians' best interest.