RICHMOND — Arelia Langhorne said her vote used to mean something.
In the decade prior to statewide redistricting in 2011, one delegate represented all of Lynchburg in a district that included part of Amherst County.
After the decennial census in 2010, the General Assembly redrew the lines in a way Langhorne says “gerrymandered” her civic voice into irrelevance. Ward II, a majority black district generally supporting Democrats, and two Ward III precincts joined rural and reliably Republican House of Delegates District 22 along with a pieceof Campbell County, much of Bedford County and part of Franklin County.
“Not only were we divorced from the city of Lynchburg but our votes had been put in the trash can because they wouldn’t make any difference to Kathy Byron’s district,” said Langhorne, a former Lynchburg Electoral Board chairwoman and school board member.
Langhorne is one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit backed by OneVirginia2021, a redistricting advocate bent on reshaping the way Virginia legislators draw their congressional and state legislative districts as constitutionally required every 10 years.
While preparing to challenge 11 House and Senate districts occupied by Republicans and Democrats as failing to meeting state constitutional standards in the Virginia Supreme Court, the nonprofit advocate tries to sway minds with satirical campaign commercials for the bumbling “Del. Jerry Mandering,” and change laws in the General Assembly.
On Monday, a seven-person subcommittee is scheduled to vote on proposed amendments to the Virginia Constitution meant to ban politically targeted redistricting as well as form an independent commission.
“Gerrymandering isn’t the issue I care about most, but it is the issue I have to care about first,” said Sam Davies, a Richmond resident and OneVirginia2021 volunteer who testified before the constitutional subcommittee last week.
After the decennial census, Virginia’s legislators divide the total population into districts with as close to an equal number of residents as possible. Gerrymandering is a term used to describe districts drawn in odd shapes to retain political power.
When legislators of any party draw their own districts, they pick their voters, neutralize specific challengers and drown out opposition views, reformers say. Statistically uncompetitive districts mean opposition parties don’t field candidates or cannot win, which bestows outsized power on more extreme and active people in each party’s base, reformers say.
“Every Virginian should know that drawing out your political opponent because he or she either ran against you or might run against you or just because they don’t believe the same thing you do, should be illegal,” OneVirginia2021 Executive Director Brian Cannon said.
Of the 122 incumbents who ran for the 140 House of Delegates and Senate seats in November 2015, all of them won. The lack of challengers speaks to unwinnable races, Cannon said.
Geographic, municipal and legal realities, though, mean redistricting is not as simple as drawing them equal in competitiveness and size. Urban districts will be more compact than rural ones where people live farther apart. Drawing competitive districts in some areas, such in Southside or Northern Virginia, would require maps as strange as those drawn for political purposes because of the political concentration of either party. Legislators must abide by federal law, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure minority voters are fairly represented.
There are far more localities than districts, so some must be split. Choosing to keep Lynchburg whole, for example, would mean a “value judgment” to split up the counties that surround it instead, Del. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg, said.
“You can’t just make a couple of concentric circles in the state of Virginia and come up with a map that is going to be in compliance,” Garrett said.
Del. Mark L. Cole, R-Spotsylvania, who chairs the Privileges and Elections Committee, says the time is wrong to make substantive changes to Virginia’s redistricting process. The commonwealth, he said, should wait for any reform until court cases are settled. He is a member of the constitutional subcommittee scheduled to hear the redistricting amendments Monday.
Some congressional districts in Virginia were redrawn ahead of the November election after federal court rulings that the General Assembly illegally packed black voters into a district, thus diluting their influence in others. A similar federal lawsuit challenging 12 House of Delegates districts awaits a U.S. Supreme Court decision after a December argument.
“The next redistricting will not occur until 2021, so there is no need to rush into approving legislation that we may end up having to repeal or change before redistricting is actually done,” Cole said in an email. None of the proposed amendments would reduce political influence or add fairness and transparency, he said.
A constitutional amendment in Virginia must be passed by joint resolution two years in row before a referendum is placed on the statewide ballot. Any that pass this year and in the 2018 General Assembly would be on the ballot in November 2018, giving the legislature the 2019 and 2020 sessions to implement the amendment by statute before redistricting came up, said Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta. A special session would likely be called in 2021 to draw new lines.
“If you’re going to do a constitutional amendment, you gotta do it this year,” said Landes, a member of the House Privileges and Elections Committee.
After making a campaign promise during the 2015 election cycle, Landes proposed additional specific redistricting criteria to the 2016 General Assembly. The legislation died in committee. This year, Landes brought House Joint Resolution 763 to add a single sentence to the Virginia Constitution banning intentional political redistricting for any specific party, representative or person.
While Cannon said Landes’ bill, “has the most legs in the House,” the bill’s sponsor said it would take “a heavy lift” to pass it.
Alternate proposals in both houses call for independent commissions — either partisan or nonpartisan — and detailed criteria in addition to the existing constitutional requirement for “contiguous and compact” districts. A bill proposed by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, takes the Lande’s language and adds specific redistricting criteria.
“We’re trying to give them every option we can to do the right thing,” Cannon said. “… Landes’ is the least they can do.”
Ultimately, OneVirginia2021 wants an independent commission with nonpartisan criteria, removing temptation or a conflict of interest.
A commission would just “elevate the politics to a different level,” Cole said. Landes agreed.
“I think you can find objective individuals, but you’re giving them power. Any time you cede power to another group, they’re going to use that power,” Landes said.
While redistricting reform has passed the full Senate in previous sessions, similar House bills have not survived committee. A slate of redistricting bills survived a Senate subcommittee vote last week and is heading to the full committee chaired by Vogel.
House Minority Leader David Toscano, a rules and procedure hawk, says there’s another way.
In a letter Monday — OneVirginia2021’s lobby day — the Charlottesville Democrat wrote to Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, urging that he employ a rarely used rule to send redistricting bills straight to the floor. Then, Toscano said, every member’s constituents will know where they stand.
“Because as you know … people say certain things but until they vote, you really don’t know what they truly think,” Toscano said.
The redistricting resolutions will follow “the normal legislative process, like all of the other 1,000 pieces of legislation introduced this year,” speaker spokesman Christopher West said in an email to The News & Advance Saturday. “The proposed legislation received a fair hearing in subcommittee last week and ample time has been allowed for individuals to weigh-in on the debate before the vote on Monday.”
Although Democrats hold all five statewide offices — most followed tight races — Republicans hold a super-majority in the House with 66 Republicans and 33 Democrats. The Senate is split 21 to 19 in favor of Republicans.
“If we have a state that is essentially a 50-50 Democratic-Republican state, how can you have an assembly that is essentially two-thirds [to] one-third?” Toscano said.
Less than two years before decennial redistricting, Garrett challenged incumbent Democrat Shannon Valentine in House District 23 and squeaked out a 209-vote victory. Prior to Valentine’s first win in a 2006 special election, Republican Preston Bryant held the seat that included the entire city of Lynchburg.
“Scott Garrett still needed some votes from Ward II and they fixed his district by expanding his district to include part of Bedford to be more in line with what he could naturally get,” Langhorne said, referring the the district prior to 2011.
In the 2012 and 2014 U.S. Senate races and 2013 statewide races, the district turned out more than 60 percent for Republicans, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Garrett said he doesn’t believe districts were drawn intentionally to favor specific people or parties, but that they may have that practical effect.
“If people just don’t like their representatives, which is what this issue is, if they simply don’t like their representative, there is a way of dealing with that,” Garrett said. “… You have an opportunity at the ballot box to change your representation.”
In 2013, when Lynchburg Democratic Chairwoman Katie Webb Cyphert challenged Byron, the incumbent won the district with 66 percent, according to VPAP. Cyphert won 66 percent out of the six Lynchburg precincts in that district, according to VPAP.
Byron declined to comment on the shape and makeup of her district because of ongoing court cases. “I was brought into a room after it was drawn,” she said.
No incumbent is unbeatable, Garrett said. He pointed to Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, defeating then-House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary in 2014.
Toscano, though, gave the same election as evidence “gerrymandered” districts can only be challenged within a party’s base, sending legislators who don’t communicate well or negotiate with each other to Richmond.
“One, because they’re coming from different places,” Toscano said, “but two because they’re always worried about their base and how their base is going to respond to any efforts to work together. Look what’s happening in Congress.”