By Frank Blechman
Virginia likes to be special. First at this. Last at that. We take (too much) pride in doing things our own way. We don’t play well with others. We don’t learn well from others. We don’t have a House of Representatives, we have a House of Delegates. We elect them in odd-numbered years. Now, it appears that our specialness has gotten us into a mess.
It is 2021. Our Virginia constitution says that in years ending in the number “1” we are supposed to redraw our political districts based on census data. This is always a challenge because the political stakes are high. This year, the challenge is particularly tough for two reasons.
- For the first time, we have a quasi-nonpartisan redistricting process involving citizens who are not members of the general assembly, and
- Census data, which is required and which normally arrives in February or March, now won’t get here until July or August (months after the scheduled primary elections in June).
That change in schedules will make no difference for this year’s at-large offices such as the statewide elections for Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General. Their area of responsibility cannot change. However, all members of the Virginia House of Delegates are up for reelection this year, too. Changes in population since 2011 means that Delegate district lines will need significant adjustment, especially here in Northern Virginia.
All members of the Virginia House of Delegates are up for reelection this year, too. Changes in population since 2011 means that Delegate district lines will need significant adjustment, especially here in Northern Virginia.
As someone who has worked in campaigns for more than 50 years, I can tell you that it is hard (nearly impossible) to design smart strategy when you don’t know what your district will be. Incumbents don’t know if they will be in the same district or a different one. Thanks to the new redistricting process, the possibility of multiple incumbents being thrown against each other in the same district is higher than in the past. How can candidates address issues that matter to voters if no one knows who those voters will be?
Worse, if the data do not arrive and districts cannot be redrawn in time for the November elections this year, candidates will have to run in the current districts this year, then in new districts in 2022, and then for reelection in 2023. Running three times in three years is not only exhausting for everybody (candidates, workers, volunteers, donors, and the media), it is expensive. Our “part-time” “citizen legislators” are already stressed by the special requirements of working during the pandemic, including last year’s extended special session.
We like to think here in Virginia that part of our virtue comes from the fact that we do not have full-time politicians making laws year-round in Richmond. Our Delegates and Senators spend most of the year working in our communities, where they are accessible to us and share our lives. We may joke about “every year is election year in Virginia” yet actually having officials run for office three years in a row creates a full-time political culture that will be different from what we have had in the past.
We may joke about “every year is election year in Virginia” yet actually having officials run for office three years in a row creates a full-time political culture that will be different from what we have had in the past.
Being resilient people, Virginia will endure and go on. But it won’t be pretty.