On cue, Virginia punts on redistricting reform

Virginia’s legislative attempt to address gerrymandering came to its expected futile end May 18 when Democratic Governor Ralph Northam vetoed a bill that would have made minor changes in the criteria the (for now) GOP-controlled General Assembly must use to draw districts. It was the final chapter in a script written in the first days of the annual session.

Reform efforts could hardly have concluded otherwise in a polarized capital, where lawmakers are watching the courts. It’s been 11 weeks since the Virginia Supreme Court heard oral arguments in one gerrymandering case and six months since a panel of the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit received final arguments in another. Perhaps both courts are waiting on U.S. Supreme Court decisions in gerrymandering cases from Wisconsin and Maryland. So Virginia’s divided political branches also could be expected to wait and see, neither party clear about its advantage.

On January 16, Republican Senator William Stanley Jr. (above, right) brought up a bill that would extend an expired license for a closed hospital in Patrick County. West of the midpoint of the state’s southern border, Patrick has an ebbing population of 17,000 and an 18-percent poverty rate.

Pioneer Community Hospital filed for bankruptcy in March 2016 and closed in September 2017. Stanley’s bill was intended to help the county attract another hospital operator by reducing red tape associated with reopening a facility with no license. As Stanley recognized, a rural county with no hospital is economically doomed.

Stanley remains a stalwart opponent of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, which would provide a revenue stream for a hospital desperate to right its finances. So when the senator sought consideration of his bill under “emergency” procedures (requiring 80-percent approval, or 32 of 40 Senate votes), 10 Democrats voted no, to remind Stanley of the conflict between his stance on Medicaid and his support for a defunct hospital.

Senate GOP Leader Thomas Norment Jr. (above, left) then joined Stanley in excoriating the Democrats for their lack of “Virginia Way” collegiality – a bit of political theater for the rank-and-file and a contingent of Stanley’s constituents watching from the gallery.

An hour later, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee held its first meeting of the session. As payback, the GOP majority killed all but one of the pending bills on redistricting – many of them reforms that had passed with bipartisan support over several sessions, though they had always died in the GOP-dominated House.

Eventually tempers settled, but the consequences for gerrymandering were clear: A governor who had run last fall on Medicaid expansion and redistricting reform wasn’t going to get any help – unless the opposition recognized it was in their interest. What’s curious is that Republican legislators don’t seem to get that both issues are in their interest.

As in other states with a rural/urban divide in the Trump era, the artificial political advantage the GOP created in the 2011 maps is on borrowed time. The urban, prosperous and increasingly Democratic counties are growing, while rural, economically distressed counties are declining, partly because of circumstances like that in Patrick. Northam won 22 percent of the county’s vote – 4,633 of the state’s 2.6 million total. Rocket scientists are not required to observe that the GOP’s prospects in Virginia are diminishing because the people attracted to its positions are a falling share of the population. (They’ve lost every statewide race since 2009.)

That the party is unable to drop its self-defeating opposition to Obamacare has yet to penetrate in the Senate, though the GOP’s House majority, reduced from 66 seats to 51 after November, shifted in March to support of Medicaid expansion in its first version of the two-year budget. (The two chambers remain at odds on the issue, stalling passage of the budget for the year that starts in six weeks.)

The author of the House’s budget bill is Chris Jones, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Jones also is author of the 2001 and 2011 House district maps. As on Medicaid expansion, Jones took the late lead in the House in drafting the chamber’s redistricting bill. HB 1598 followed the Senate GOP’s lone reform, SB 106, which drew two of 19 Democratic votes.

The identical bills would have codified several criteria for the GA to follow in drawing maps for its seats and for the U.S. House. They focused on a definition of compactness that stressed consistency with existing political jurisdictions, like cities and counties. Senate Democrats led by George Barker, the author of the 2011 Senate map, complained that the provision would distort representation – and harm them (though the party ended up losing control under Barker’s maps).

Neither party in the GA is ready to address the problem: redistricting is a party- and incumbent-protection racket. The way to fix it, non-partisans proposed, is to give the job to an independent commission, and short of that require the legislature to disregard voter data in drawing maps. The substantive reform authored by Democratic Delegate Rip Sullivan and Republican Senator Emmett Hanger Jr. would bar districts drawn “for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring any political party, incumbent legislator or member of Congress, or potential candidate.”

Virginia’s governor has the power to submit amendments to bills for the GA’s up-or-down vote. Northam’s amendments stripped the GOP’s compactness language and added the Sullivan/Hanger provision, plus a requirement concerning fair representation for minority voters.

A month ago the House rejected the governor’s amendments on party lines, 51-48. One Democrat and one Republican crossed lines in the Senate’s 20-19 dispatch of the amendments. Faced with the original version of the bill to sign or reject, Northam vetoed it.

“. . . . [T]his legislation excludes criteria that are essential to fair electoral maps,” Northam wrote in his veto message. “Any criteria for redistricting must prohibit districts from being drawn to restrict or deny the ability of any racial or ethnic minority to participate in the political process and elect a preferred candidate. I believe the criteria should also prohibit districts that favor or disfavor any political party, incumbent legislator, member of Congress or individual or entity.”

Northam’s words come from the Sullivan/Hanger bills, though they omit the distinction of intent. Some districts inevitably will favor one party or the other; the issue is whether they are drawn for that purpose.

As with Medicaid, the Republicans remain in denial. They suppose that the 2017 Democratic wave was a fluke, to be reversed in 2019 when senators – not a president, governor or U.S. senator – will top the ballot and turnout will be lower. Democrats, on the other hand, feel certain they are riding a wave that has yet to crest.

Says Democratic Delegate Mark Levine, “The GOP will support redistricting reform the moment it’s in the minority.” Meanwhile, the legislature is back where it was, having done nothing to address its own lack of political legitimacy.






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