By Hon. Kenneth C. Alexander
Mayor, City of Norfolk
Gerrymandering is as Virginian as Patrick Henry. But it’s long past time to retire this manipulative political practice to the history books, exactly where it belongs. In January and February, I’ll be joining with thousands of fellow Virginia voters to promote nonpartisan redistricting reform in the 2017 General Assembly session, and I hope you’ll be among them.
First, though, a little history and context. In 1788, Henry tried to rig the election for the first Congress of the United States by persuading the General Assembly to shape Virginia’s 5th District in such a way that his nemesis, James Madison, would be opposed by the powerful James Monroe. The tactic didn’t work, as Madison won anyway. (And this type of distorting of legislative boundaries never became known as “henrymandering.” Instead, the notoriety of “gerrymandering” derived from the name Elbridge Gerry for that man’s actions as governor of Massachusetts in 1812.)
But at least there was serious competition in the Madison-Monroe election of 1788. That’s something missing from most 21st Century elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia’s General Assembly and many legislative bodies across our country. On Nov. 8, 2016, all 435 House seats were up for election, but only 36 – or 8 percent – were considered competitive, according to the nonprofit OneVirginia2021 organization, which advocates redistricting reform.
The November 2015 General Assembly election for all seats – 40 in the Senate, 100 in the House – saw all 33 Senate incumbents re-elected along with all 89 House incumbents. In many districts, only one candidate ran – 17 in the Senate and 62 in the House. The nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project said the 2015 General Assembly elections marked the first such “clean sweep for incumbents” since it began monitoring state elections in 1995.
Why the lack of competition in most districts? Gerrymandering – the deliberate designing of legislative boundaries to favor one candidate or party over any others – is one of the major causes, along with the ever-growing infusion of big money on top of the power of incumbency. Gerrymandering has benefited all major political parties since Patrick Henry’s day. As President Barack Obama, on Feb. 10, 2016, told the Illinois General Assembly – gerrymandered in favor of Democrats – “Nobody has got clean hands on this thing.”
But in recent years, the design of gerrymandered districts has gone well beyond being a mere “incumbent-protection plan.” The practice has moved from a perpetual tit-for-tat politics-as-usual exchange between Republicans and Democrats to a nuclear option for fracking a district’s political landscape in order to hyper-enrich one political party while permanently devastating the other.
Political parties are better able to manipulate district boundaries through the use of highly sophisticated computerized mapping programs that allow elected officials to choose many of their voters instead of leaving too much to normal uncertainty. Years ago, political bosses were said to hire goons to patrol voter lines on election day and muscle out voters who might not be compliant. Nowadays, modern forms of flexing this muscle are akin to targeting voters via remote-controlled drone strikes even before they have the chance to show up at the polls.
Gerrymandering has always been bad for democracy. Modern gerrymandering is megatons worse. Kenneth S. Stroupe Jr., chief of staff at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and former press secretary for former Virginia Governor George Allen, noted several concerns as early as 2009. He wrote that a growing body of research connects gerrymandering with reducing political competition, protecting incumbents, promoting partisan bias and polarization, tamping down voter turnout, increasing voter apathy, heightening legislative gridlock instead of a willingness to find common ground, and enabling a lack of accountability among legislators who occupy politically insulated safe seats.
If you live in a district where an incumbent runs with no or minimal opposition, then why bother voting? Isn’t that a form of voter suppression? How do you explain the sanctity of voting to children? How can you hope to gain fair consideration from a legislator when you bring a community problem to his or her attention? And let’s ask our legislators, How do you reconcile the notion that America thrives on the competitive spirit with the lack of meaningful competition in politics?
I know something about gerrymandering from the inside, from having served in Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate before becoming mayor of Norfolk. I participated in the process that enabled legislators to help draw their own districts, in effect choose who gets to vote for them. Even with the best intentions, we were apt to draw those lines for political benefit. I better understand this now, so that’s why I’ve joined the movement for redistricting reform.
Gerrymandering decreases voter participation. So one of the antidotes is to get involved. Here are a couple of ways to start:
◆ On Wednesday, Jan. 11, at 7 p.m., in Virginia Wesleyan College’s Blocker Auditorium, Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms and I will co-host a special free screening of “GerryRigged: Turning Democracy on its Head,” a 2016 public television documentary about gerrymandering in Virginia. I was interviewed for this documentary and several of comments were included. The screening will be followed by public discussion. (There also is a pre-screening reception for those who donate at least $250 to the nonprofit OneVirginia2021 nonpartisan redistricting reform organization. See www.onevirginia2021.org for details.)
◆ On Monday, Jan. 23, the OneVirginia2021 redistricting reform organization will lead a citizen lobbying day activity at the General Assembly in Richmond. The goal is to get the state legislature to create a nonpartisan legislative redistricting commission for Virginia, just as several states already have. I will participate in the lobbying day, and I urge fellow citizens from across Hampton Roads to join in. Again, for details, please visit www.onevirginia2021.com.
Other states have created nonpartisan independent redistricting commissions. It’s time for Virginia to move beyond the political trickery that began two centuries ago. It’s time to un-rig the system.