‘James Madison faced gerrymandering . . . even before the word was invented’
By Kit Goldfarb
Special to the Rappahannock News
The topic of fair redistricting is top of mind for many in Rappahannock, as exhibited by the standing room only gathering at the home of Nancy and Dick Raines on Saturday night.
Nearly 100 people gathered to hear Rappahannock residents Paul Smith, Vice President, Litigation and Strategy, at the Campaign Legal Center (CLC); Leslie Cockburn, 2018 Democratic candidate for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District; and Brian Cannon, Executive Director of OneVirginia2021.
CLC is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and strengthening the U.S. democratic process, including fair redistricting and fighting to end gerrymandering. OneVirginia2021 is a leader in advocating for fair redistricting in Virginia. The event was a fundraiser for the two organizations.
In order to reflect the changes in population, voting districts are redrawn by each state every ten years based on the census. Gerrymandering is the process of drawing voting districts in a way that gives an unfair advantage to the party in control of the state legislature. Smith provided insights into the ongoing efforts to end gerrymandering and ensure fair redistricting throughout the country. He explained that fair redistricting is supported by both the 1st and the 14th Amendments to the Constitution: the former protects free speech and points of view and the latter guarantees equal protection.
To illustrate how gerrymandering damages true voter representation, he cited two cases in which he and CLC were involved. The first was Gill v. Whitford, the Wisconsin case against partisan gerrymandering he argued before the Supreme Court last year.
“The Wisconsin gerrymander was very effective,” Smith explained. “Even when Democrats received over 50 percent of the votes, they have received only 36-37 percent of the seats statewide. The result has been public policy that is far more conservative than what Wisconsin voters have historically supported.” He added that no definitive decision was reached and the case will be heard again later this year.
The second case involves the North Carolina congressional map, which was drawn in 2016. In drawing that map, the Republican chair of the redistricting committee openly stated that the map should be drawn so that there would be 10 Republicans and three Democrats. The North Carolina case will come before the Supreme Court on March 26th, the same day the Maryland Democratic gerrymandering case will be heard.
Smith said five states have passed ballot measures for fair redistricting in 2018, and CLC worked on all five.
Cannon turned the discussion to districts in Virginia, which are currently drawn by the Virginia General Assembly and result in heavily gerrymandered districts, including Rappahannock’s congressional and state districts.
“Polls show that 78 percent of all Virginians support fair redistricting, including 88 percent of self-identified Democrats and 73 percent of self-identified Republicans. The only ones against,” he noted, “are lawmakers in the capital in Richmond.”
Unlike other states that are fairly receptive to citizen-initiated referenda passing state constitutional amendments establishing independent commissions, Virginia requires that a constitutional amendment go through a complex, multi-year process that involves passing legislation this year and next year in order to get on the ballot in 2020. If passed, this legislation will determine the next redistricting in 2021 — before the 2021 elections.
There are currently two plans being debated in Richmond, a House plan and a Senate plan. Both have moved from their originating chamber to the other, and the process starts over again — from committee meetings to possible changes in the language.
Cannon explained that “the Senate plan would create a hybrid commission of both citizens and legislators (8 of each) and would signify the first time in Virginia’s history that citizens would have a significant voice in the redistricting process.”
The House plan prohibits legislators from drawing their own lines and currently includes clear rules that keep communities together; however, it lacks provisions that require transparency of commission meetings and language that prohibits the use of partisan data to draw the maps. Further, the process to select the members of the final commission is not nearly as rigorous and vetted as the Senate plan. Cannon urged attendees to call both Rappahannock’s State Senator Mark Obenshain to thank him for his support and Delegate Michael Webert to urge his support.
Cockburn followed by sharing her personal experiences and observations from her congressional campaign. She stressed that fair redistricting is the most important issue we can address. The size of the 5th Congressional District — larger than the state of New Jersey — makes it very difficult for any candidate to campaign. Additionally, she stated, “before the 2011 redistricting, there were more Democrats in the 5th. After the 2011 redistricting, the removal of Martinsville and addition of Fauquier changed that and Tom Perriello, who was elected before 2011, was the last Democrat to win the 5th congressional seat.”
Cockburn pointed out that Virginia has a long history of gerrymandering. James Madison faced gerrymandering when he ran for the 5th in the first congressional race in the state, even before the word was invented. Patrick Henry, then governor of Virginia, wanted to ensure his enemy Madison’s defeat in the race against James Monroe, so Henry added two anti-federalist counties, Fluvanna and Goochland.
“Madison tirelessly rode the district with frostbite and enlisted the support of the Baptists, who threw their votes his way with a promise from him to draw up a Bill of Rights,” said Cockburn. Despite Henry’s efforts, Madison won.
For those interested in CLC and OneVirginia2021 and the work they are doing on fair redistricting and gerrymandering, more information can be found at www.campaignlegal.org and www.onevirginia2021.org.