Tag Archives: redistricting

Senator Henry Marsh’s big day.

Senate Session

Today was a big day for Senator Henry Marsh. The legislator of twenty years took a rare day off during the Virginia Senate’s 46-day session, to attend President Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration in Washington D.C. For the 79-year-old black civil rights lawyer, attending a black president’s inauguration on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday is perhaps the most auspicious of occasions. Certainly nobody would object to him missing just one day. Looking at today’s legislative calendar, he would have seen that his absence wouldn’t be problematic, with nothing contentious on the agenda. (With the Senate split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans, and with a Republican lieutenant governor acting as tie-breaker, that’s no small point.)

Marsh grew up under Jim Crow. He had a ten-mile round-trip walk to his one-room schoolhouse—an awfully long trip for a seven-year-old—while white kids took a bus to a modern school. Marsh didn’t let racism hold him back. He didn’t just graduate from primary school, but went onto college. When he was a senior at Virginia Union University, the Byrd Machine was organizing “massive resistance”—shutting down public schools rather than comply with Brown v. Board of Education—and Marsh got involved, testifying against the policy before the General Assembly. In doing so, he met famed civil rights attorney Oliver Hill; at Hill’s encouragement, he got a degree in law from Howard University, and later went into private practice with Hill, focusing on civil rights law. Marsh and his practice were responsible for huge advances in civil rights over the decades, eliminating “separate but equal,” busing, and racial discrimination in hiring. Along the way he became the first black mayor of Richmond, and was elected to his Senate seat in 1991. Today he chairs the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission and created the Martin Luther King Jr. Living History and Public Policy Center.

So it bears repeating: today was a very big day for Henry Marsh. He must have taken a great deal of satisfaction in seeing his life’s work culminate in the first black president’s reelection, being sworn in on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. It was a very, very good reason to miss a day’s session.

Today was also a big day for Senate Republicans. They knew that Henry Marsh would be at the inauguration today, and that the 20–20 split in the Senate would become a 20–19 split while Marsh was 100 miles north, among the throngs on the National Mall. So today was the day that they decided—without hearings, advertisements, notifications, or warnings—to take a chunk out of Marsh’s district, along with a handful of others, to ghettoize black voters in a majority-minority district and put 45% of voting-age citizens into new districts.

I sat in the Senate gallery, along with no more than perhaps a half-dozen other people, slack-jawed with confusion (tweeting all the while) as Republican Sen. John Watkins filibustered through the allotted 15 minutes to discuss what was advertised as the third reading of a pretty boring bill, making technical adjustments to district boundaries. Unbeknownst to anybody but the 20 Senate Republicans, the bill had been replaced with a radical redistricting, combining two senators into a single district (eliminating the district of 2009 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds), reshuffling district boundaries throughout the state to absorb those changes (to Republicans’ apparent favor in a half-dozen districts), and creating a “black district.”

Senate Democrats tried repeatedly to get a word in, but they were blocked procedurally. A series of votes were held (votes about voting, votes about reconsidering voting about voting, and so on), all failing 20–19, during which a few people got to make remarks. One Democratic senator moved to simply put the vote off until tomorrow, so that there’d be time to read this brand-new bill. That vote failed 20–19. Another Democratic senator pointed out that this was simply unconstitutional (“[t]he General Assembly shall reapportion the Commonwealth into electoral districts in accordance with this section in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter”). One Republican senator insisted that this was simply a racially sensitive improvement, since it was establishing a majority-minority district. Another Republican said that there was no need to hold hearings on this new redistricting, because they held hearings a few years ago, last time they redistricted. Yet it remained unclear throughout what, exactly, this bill did, though Democrats were frantically trying to figure that out as they stalled with round after round of procedural vote, a peeved Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling presiding over the whole affair. Finally there was nothing else to be done—the vote was held, and the bill passed, 20–19.

Lt. Gov Bolling says he would have voted against the bill, if it had been a tie. Which is surely why the bill was introduced today.

Senate Republicans’ MLK Day gift to Senator Marsh and to Virginia is to use the re-inauguration of the United States’ first black president as cover to pass a bill that will make it harder for black candidates to get elected.

Now the bill goes to the House of Delegates, who will no doubt pass it, and then to Gov. Bob McDonnell, who said he was as surprised by this bill as everybody else. We’re about to learn if McDonnell has really become the centrist he’s presenting himself as, or if he’s the same old right-wing extremist. I fear we already know the answer.

Links for August 6th

  • The Washington Post: Fewer dinners mean meaner politics
    Since Gingrich's cohort of Republicans came into office in 1994, there has been a steady decline in bipartisan socialization and, indeed, socialization at all. He exhorted freshmen to return to their districts whenever possible, to be in D.C. only when absolutely necessary. The result is a dangerous loss in bipartisanship. It's easy to see opposing opinions as evil if you don't actually know anybody who holds those opinions.
  • AP: Surry County to Open Poll for One Voter
    There's just one guy in the 3rd Senate district in Surry County. State law requires that a polling place be open all day, staffed by three people. It'll cost $2,000. Bang-up job on redistricting, legislature. It's these little things that really show the attention to detail.
  • New York Times: Public Views Congress as Top Culprit in Debt Debate, Poll Finds
    Congress is at its highest-ever disapproval rating. If you were one of the people insisting last year that the majority had lost the right to lead Congress because of their low approval ratings, this might be an occasion for a little hypocrisy gut check.

The background to the redistricting process is starting to emerge.

In the Post, Anita Kumar explains how the redistricting proposals came about:

This year, despite the appointment of a bipartisan commission to advise legislators, the lines were largely drawn by two men: Sen. George L. Barker (D), a health-care planner from Prince William County, and Rep. S. Chris Jones (R), a pharmacist from Suffolk.

The pair were part of a small cadre of legislators who worked quietly to draw the maps with input primarily from the majority party in each house. Fewer than 10 of the state’s 140 legislators were privy to the lines before they were made public last week, according to lawmakers and aides.

And how did Barker model his redistricting theories? Using Dave’s Redistricting. I don’t know whether to be depressed or pleased.

Also, it turns out that Del. Rob Bell assisted Jones in drawing the house maps, which only makes the crazy proposed boundaries for his district even more inexplicable. (The Daily News Record weighed in against the proposed lines in an editorial today.)

And what of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “bipartisan redistricting committee”? Well, it’s more of a fig leaf than ever. McDonnell only established the commission in January—far too late to give them time to actually produce anything useful early enough for the legislature to even pretend to consider it—which is presumably why their recommendations weren’t issued until late last night, giving the legislature one half of one working day to even consider them. (Rather a brief period in which to review 151 districts.) The governor is already trying to distance himself from those recommendations—spokesman Tucker Martin told Tyler Whitley that “the recommendations of the commission are theirs alone; they are not recommendations by the governor.”

The Daily Press quotes my friend Sean O’Brien on the topic:

Committee member Sean O’Brien said the real change is likely to come during Virginia’s 2021 redraw.

“I feel like we’re laying the groundwork, the foundation for 10 years from now,” O’Brien said. “So that we’re not in a position of having public hearings in four days.”

We’re always hoping to get them right next time around. Why should it be any different in 2021?

First thoughts on redistricting.

I’m getting home too late to provide much in the way of useful commentary, but I really want to point to the redistricting plans that became public this evening. Just one week before they’re due to be voted on, we’re all getting our first look at them. (To be fair, I thought odds were good that they wouldn’t be public at all prior to the vote, so it could be worse.) So far only senate and house districts are available—no official, detailed congressional lines are public yet—and there’s been no time for proper analysis. In a nutshell, Senate Democrats drew the lines that benefit them, and House Republicans drew the lines that benefit them. If any of those benefit us, that’s just a happy coincidence.

VPAP has crunched some numbers, although I recommend skipping the confusing default charts and using the scatterplots, which are a better way to visualize the proposed changes.

Where I live, things would stay the same. I’d remain in the 58th house district, represented by Republican Rob Bell, and I’d remain in the 25th senate district, represented by Democrat Creigh Deeds. The 58th ends up distending to the west rather a long way—clear over the mountains to to Elkton, within spitting distance of Massanutten—linking two utterly unrelated communities. And although I’m very happy having Creigh as my senator, I think the fact that I’m going to remain in his district highlights one of the many problems with redistrict as it’s practiced. The 25th is ridiculous, and the proposed 25th looks even more ridiculous. There’s just no way that it makes sense for a senator who lives in Bath County to represent Albemarle County. But much of his existing constituency is here, and his fellow Democrats in the senate aren’t about to change that.

My assumption is that the final district boundaries are going to look very much like—if not precisely like—what we see here. I’d love to hear from folks about how their own district is going to be affected. What about your new boundaries don’t make any sense? Is there anything that’s improved?

Virginia Redistricting Competition winners announced.

Quentin Kidd (of CNU) and Michael McDonald (of GMU) held a competition for the best redistricting plans for Congress, the Senate, and the House. Fifteen teams from eleven universities participated. The winners, selected by folks from the the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, were announced today. Of all of the submissions, UVA won for best Congressional districts, a different team from UVA won for best Senate districts, and GMU won for best House districts. (Detailed maps are available, too.)

Take a good look at these districts. In particular, study what your own districts would look like. They’re definitely not going to be perfect, but keep them in mind. When the new districts are announced by the General Assembly—and that’s how it’ll work, they’ll just be dropped into our laps one day, fully formed—compare your district to what it could have been. Most of us will be disappointed by reality.

The winning Congressional plan keeps me in the 5th congressional district, which would wind up making some unfortunate cuts across northwest Albemarle, as well as a few surrounding counties, rather than following the county boundaries. The southern end gets cut out, and it winds up extending clear to Richmond, but it strikes me as a generally sensible district. More sensible than the existing district, anyhow. This would cut Rep. Robert Hurt out of this district.

The winning Senate plan moves me out of the 25th (Creigh Deeds’ district). Heck, it moves Creigh Deeds out of Creigh Deeds’ district, into one that makes more sense for a man from Bath County. I wind up in a district—the 15th—that looks a lot like the new 5CD, extending slightly farther south and not getting as close to Richmond. Although my district looks a little odd as it dodges around Charlottesville, I think it’s otherwise reasonable.

And the winning House plan keeps me in the same district—the 58th, Rob Bell’s district—but the district gets a lot smaller, because it would include Charlottesville. If I’m right in my understanding of where Bell’s home is, that puts Bell into a runoff with Del. David Toscano, who represents the 57th, which consists of Charlottesville and the urban ring. Bell would undoubtedly lose that runoff, because his district would become far more liberal with the addition of Charlottesville, reliably the second-best performer in the state for Democrats. (Petersburg is #1.) Personally, I don’t think such concerns should matter in nonpartisan redistricting, so I’m happy to set that aside. I think the new 58th makes plenty of sense, and I’d have no quarrel with it.

As I said, not perfect, but pretty good. I could live with these districts. I should be so lucky to have the opportunity.

Links for March 15th

  • FOIA.gov
    Woot! It's not just open government—it's open government about open government. Virginia needs one of these.
  • Virginian Pilot: Va. House members back redistricting plan
    The state's House of Representatives delegation have agreed on a redistricting plan that would protect all incumbents. Let's all pause and put on our best surprised faces. Griffith's district grows to take some of Goodlatte's, absorbing Martinsville from Hurt's district. Rigell's district grows to take some of Wittman's, while Wittman's district expands up towards D.C. Connolly gets Reston and Herdon, losing conservative parts of Prince William for more liberal parts of the county. Everybody wins. Except voters.
  • Tumblr: Virginia Coalition for Open Government
    If you're not already following VCOG on Twitter or the VCOG blog, you might follow it on its new Tumblog. I'd be surprised if there is a more open, active state-level open government organization group in the nation. (Disclaimer: I'm on the board, though I've had nothing to do with any of this outreach.)

How will we keep an eye on redistricting?

I’m really worried about how redistricting is going to happen. It strikes me as enormously likely that House Republicans and Senate Democrats will go into their respective huddles, and emerge with new district lines that will be voted on immediately. I fully anticipate that the first time that we see these lines will be when they are the law of the land. There will not be round after round of proposed district boundaries posted online, subject to public scrutiny, modified in response to public comment. Or, again, so I fear.

What’s to be done? Can we count on traditional media outlets—dwindling resources and all—to elbow their way into the proverbial smoke-filled rooms and tell us what’s going on? Will VPAP’s efforts be enough? What could be done, in theory? Imagine a healthy budget, tenacious volunteers, enthusiastic investigative reporters, and ample resources. In the face of a secretive legislature, determined to draw partisan boundaries, what would you have such a crew do to open up this process?

Redistricting considerations.

After getting sucked into Dave’s Redistricting App for a couple of hours, I’m left wondering about all of the factors that ought to be taken into account when creating districts. In particular, congressional districts, due to their size, but I suppose I’m wondering all around, too. What I’ve come up with so far are:

  • Human movement patterns. Districts ought to encompass the typical movement patterns of the majority of its residents. A district that includes Charlottesville and Fredericksburg makes significantly less sense than one that includes Charlottesville and Waynesboro.
  • Competition. It should be possible for either Republicans or Democrats to win in a given district.
  • Media markets. Districts should be created with the boundaries of media outlets’ distribution in mind, including that all districts should have media outlets.
  • Demographic diversity. Each district should have a voter makeup that encompasses the spectrum of people living in that region.
  • Commonality. Sociogeography is influenced by physical geography. Some parts of the state have more in common than other parts, and, when contiguous, they should share representation.
  • Existing boundaries. Municipal borders mean a lot to us. They’re part of how we define our tribe. Districts should obey those borders, rather than ignoring them.
  • Compact. Districts should be as geographically small as feasible, traversable on major roads from end to end without having to leave the district to do so.

As is clear with only the briefest of reflection, it’s simply not possible to achieve all of these goals—or maybe even most of them—in every district. Most of them are frequently oppositional, in application. They’re really more ideals. And some of these are really minimums, rather than goals. For example, it’s not the job of a redistricting committee to create media outlets, but it would be wrong to deliberately establish a district that skirts the boundaries of the distribution of daily newspapers and the reach of television broadcast.

What other considerations should be part of the redistricting process?

House Republicans to oppose nonpartisan redistricting?

From the latest RPV newsletter:

We are well positioned to have a sweep of statewide offices and expand our majority in the House of Delegates. And, make no mistake, redistricting is on the ballot. Our ability to protect and expand our numbers for the next decade hangs in the balance.

If House Republicans had a lick of sense, they’d push hard for nonpartisan redistricting during the upcoming session. To the extent that this note from the RPV newsletter indicates the House Republicans’ plans, it looks like they still just don’t get it.

House minority leader Del. Ward Armstrong told me last year that he supports nonpartisan redistricting, but only so long as Democrats are in the minority. Republicans have six weeks—this coming session—in which they can prevent Democrats from redistricting them into oblivion. Let’s watch them squander it.