In The Music Man, Harold Hill, a consummate con artist, arrives in River City to dupe its residents with his moneymaking schemes. Despite a complete absence of musical ability, he convinces all that he is a brilliant bandleader and recruits all the boys in town to form a band in order to pocket the cash they pay for instruments and uniforms.
Virginia’s voters were persuaded that a commission – distant but not quite fully independent of the General Assembly – could deliver an ensemble of acceptable and harmonious electoral districts free of the usual mad scramble of musical chairs that partisan gerrymandering produced. That promise appears to be in trouble, which begins with “t” and rhymes with “p” and that stands for partisan.
At its first formal meeting in January, the 16-member Virginia Redistricting Commission (VRC), composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, elected co-chairs, one from each bloc. This action was perhaps the first overt step reflecting the organization’s congenital partisan division.
Several weeks ago, the VRC, unable to agree upon legal counsel, voted to employ both Democratic and Republican firms to advise the group. Most recently, the commission could not agree to engage an academic institution (the University of Richmond) to provide the technical expertise to draw the state’s electoral boundaries. Members received differing opinions from the legal counsels, with Democratic counsel not opposed but Republican counsel challenging the institution’s lack of experience and potential bias. The political divide appears to be increasing and may lead to the hiring of competing firms drawing maps, creating a “war of the maps.”
The political divide appears to be increasing and may lead to the hiring of competing firms drawing maps, creating a “war of the maps.”
In theory, the commission’s task was simply to recommend a map plan for consideration by the General Assembly. If no agreement was reached in two attempts, then the Virginia Supreme Court would be responsible for determining the boundaries. At present, VRC’s objectives are to deliver to the legislature a set of state and local maps by October 10 and congressional maps by October 25.
At present, the 2021 election of delegates will proceed based upon the results of the 2010 census data. The intrastate population dynamics indicate that a number of newly elected legislators will represent districts substantially different from the ones from which they were chosen. A lawsuit has been filed demanding a new election in November 2022 based upon new districts.
The census data under consideration by VRC suggest that rural southern counties of the Commonwealth, having experienced population declines, are likely to lose at least the equivalent of two House seats to the more populous northern counties, which gained population. Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the current chamber. The tenor of the campaign for all 100 seats in November is already intense, as both parties have fielded candidates in 90+% of the contests. National party organizations are pouring money and staff into the House campaigns as Virginia emerges as a bellwether for their national hopes in 2022 and 2024. The General Assembly’s Senate has a 21-19 Democratic majority, but elections are not on the calendar until 2023.
However, should the population dynamics predicate a shift in the number of seats toward northern Virginia counties, even of a single seat, partisan anxieties will be in extremis. Another effect of population shifts for both houses is the potential increase in the geographic size of districts to meet Constitutional requirements of one person, one vote, along with other conditions required in the Commonwealth. Population shifts, boundary changes, and geographic size affect campaign and electoral strategies.
Should the General Assembly punt the boundary drawing to the Supreme Court, state and local election officials will sorely challenged to produce clear information to voters and candidates regarding changes to precincts for the actual casting of ballots.
Should the General Assembly punt the boundary drawing responsibility to the Supreme Court, state and local election officials will be sorely challenged to produce clear information to voters and candidates regarding changes to precincts for the actual casting of ballots. This is true even if VRC meets its goal of October 10. The legislature will consume time to vote on the Commission’s product. Which partisan interests might be served by delaying consideration remains a mere guess. Nor may political partisan interests necessarily be satisfied by a judicial decision. A court decision offers yet another opportunity to point the finger of failure elsewhere.
However flawed, fragile, and fractious the present process is, Virginia has ten more years until 2030 to make course corrections. While trouble in Richmond City may be inevitable, it may turn out to be the type of “good trouble” that benefits democracy.