April 3, 2011 [LINK / comment]

Legislators seek redistricting input (?)

Yesterday morning (Saturday) I went to Verona to attend the public hearings on the 2011 redistricting process. It was one of eight such hearings held in advance of the special redistricting session of the Virginia General Assembly this week. According to the Richmond Times Dispatch (March 19), the hearings are intended "to solicit comments on proposed new boundaries for congressional and legislative districts." (Virginia House of Delegates, the State Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives.) They were expected to make public the proposed new districts for the before the hearings, but that turned out not to be the case for the congressional districts. In the hearing room, there were stacks of maps with alternative proposals for the House of Delegates and Senate only.

Behind the dais in the front of the room, I counted seven members of the Redistricting Committees of each chamber's Privileges and Elections committees (six for the House and eight for the Senate; see LIS Web site) who were present:

Delegate Chris Jones chaired the meeting, and spoke for a few minutes about the overall objectives of the redistricting process. About two dozen citizens were present in the audience, as well as local delegates Steve Landes and Dickie Bell. I would have expected at least twice that many, but there was apparently very little advance publicity of the hearings. Two gentlemen from northern Rockingham County spoke in opposition to the proposed division of the town of Timberville into separate districts.

Then came my turn to make a statement, and I stated that the purported congressional redistricting plan that has been circulating on the Internet (believed to be a compromise agreed upon by the eleven incumbent members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia) runs counter to the criteria set by the Virginia Constitution. At a time when the Constitution is such a critical issue, it was very important for legislators to observe it in a consistent manner. I explained that I have had my U.S. Government students engage in a classroom exercise to come up with their own redistricting plans, of which I submitted the best one among the three sections. I also submitted my own proposed redistricting plan, including the following text and map:

Article II Section 6 of the Constitution of Virginia states, "Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory* and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district." The proposed congressional districting plan shown below adheres very closely to those requirements, diverging from the mean (727,366) by 1% or less in nearly all cases, and has several other clear advantages that warrant serious consideration.

* Emphasis added. ** Counties and cities are divided on a percentage basis; precincts are not specified.

Virginia Congressional districts 2012 - my proposal

(Roll mouse over the above map to compare my proposal to the current congressional district boundaries.)

I expected that there would be statements or discussion by the committee members, but to my surprise, the meeting adjourned almost immediately after I returned to my seat. Just like that, it was over! I stuck around for a while and chatted with some of the other people, and we all had the sense that the meeting had been mostly for show. It seemed like a waste of time for all those state legislators to have driven so far to get to Augusta County, and then not to say anything more than a few token words.

Reporters from both local newspapers were at the hearing, and as a follow-up to my statement in the hearing, I sent the above proposal along with additional comments to them in an e-mail message later that day. In the Sunday paper, I was quoted in the News Leader:

In my opinion, anyone who agrees to that plan and yet claims to adhere to a strict reading of the state constitution (and presumably, the U.S. Constitution) is a hypocrite. At a time when cynicism about our government is already widespread, especially among many younger people, going ahead with the redistricting plans that seem to be aimed at protecting incumbents will only make things worse. Instead of the people choosing their representatives, the representatives would be choosing their people.

I was also quoted in Sunday's News Virginian:

I am concerned that the very tight schedule may not give the legislators enough time to properly consider all the suggestions that are being made. ... I remain worried that the hearings may be little more than a pro forma exercise to give the appearance of soliciting public input, when in fact the decisions may have already been made.

Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise, but there was no mention of the bipartisan redistricting commission that was set up by Gov. Bob McDonnell; the General Assembly seems determined to ignore any suggestions they make. (I should note that one of the congressional redistricting plans they did bore a certain resemblance to my plan, including moving Lynchburg and Amherst County from the Sixth to the Fifth Districts.) At augustafreepress.com, Del. Ken Plum (D - Reston) lamented the politicized nature of the redistricting process, and discussed the advantages of relying upon an independent commission for that purpose. Maybe, as he suggests, it will happen in 2021 -- but only if enough citizens care enough to demand it.

I engaged in a couple discussions about redistricting on Facebook* recently, and was surprised that some people seem to think the proposed stretched-out Fifth Congressional District (which evidently will extend from the North Carolina border all the way to within 20 miles of Maryland) might fit the definition of "compact." I also noted that "Poor Rep. Hurt will be racking up thousands of miles on his odometer!" Given the high profile of the legal challenge to the health care law, I find it hard to believe that a political leader could be so inconsistent on constitutional principles. The 11th District is extremely gerrymandered, which is fitting for incumbent Rep. Gerry Connolly. It is not the finest hour for representative democracy in America.

* All the time I've been number-crunching and map-drawing has taken away from my Facebook activities lately. I hope to "reemerge" and become sociable once again very soon.