As candidates gear up for the fall congressional campaigns, the stage is also being set for another battle that will have more long-range political consequences.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s foot soldiers have returned from the field and the agency is now doing quality assurance tests before releasing the final figures for the 2010 Census later this fall. Here in Falls Church City, 77 percent of existing households returned their mail forms by late April. (Since then, census takers have tried to interview the rest.) For those who like to track measures of the city’s exceptionalism, this return rate was higher than the national average of 72 percent, and the state rate of 76 percent, but lower than a number of jurisdictions around the state, such as King and Queen County, which achieved an 84 percent return rate.
Population means power, and never more so than in the years, like 2011, when the General Assembly will redraw congressional and legislative districts to reflect the latest Census data. Unfortunately, over the past 20 years, a system has evolved in which legislators are able to choose their voters rather than the other way around. The result is legislative and congressional districts that are ceded to a particular political party, resulting in more polarized governance, increased voter apathy and diminished voter turnout
The recent history is not pretty. In Virginia’s 2009 legislative elections, 32 of the 100 members of the General Assembly faced no opposition, and only 12 races were considered “competitive,” (that is, decided by a margin of fewer than 10 percentage points). The same trend was seen in the 2007 State Senate races; in 17 of the 40 races, the incumbent had no opposition and only nine races were “competitive.” (That year, more than half of the General Assembly candidates faced no opposition!) Del. Jim Scott, who represents Falls Church, won with more thn 61 percent of the vote in 2009. State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, who also represents the city, won with more than 82 percent of the vote in 2007, the last year she ran. That year, with no hotly contested statewide race on the ballot, voter turnout in her district dropped to below 25 percent.
The same trend is seen in congressional districts, both in Virginia and nationwide. In 2008, incumbents had no opposition in two of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts and only three of the races were decided by a margin of fewer than 10 percentage points. Nationwide, 7 percent of House incumbents had no opposition that year.
With control of the General Assembly divided between the two political parties, there is a better opportunity for a more even-handed approach to redistricting.
Under the Virginia Constitution, the General Assembly is directed to draw districts that are “continguous” and “compact.” They must also be roughly equal in population size and meet Voting Rights Act requirements to protect the voting strength of minority groups. But when the Republican-controlled General Assembly drew the boundaries in 2001, it chose to retaliate against what a Democratic-controlled General Assembly had done 10 years before: namely, to pack as many Democrats as it could into certain districts, creating some safe Democratic strongholds but reducing the party’s potential impact statewide.
In but one interesting example, the resulting 8th Congressional District, which includes Falls Church City, bears a striking similarity-if flip-flopped–to the salamander-shaped Massachusetts district that led to the term “gerrymander” back in 1812. For the past decade, Democratic Rep. Jim Moran has received at least 60 percent of the vote in every election for this district.
In recent General Assembly sessions, a variety of groups, including the League of Women Voters of Virginia, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the AARP and the League of Conservation Voters, have supported the creation of a bipartisan citizens’ commission to prepare a redistricting plan for the General Assembly to adopt. In fact, at the urging of the League of Women Voters of Falls Church, the Falls Church City Council also adopted redistricting reform as one of its legislative priorities for the 2009 General Assembly session.
In the 2009 gubernatorial campaign, both major-party candidates supported a bipartisan redistricting commission. However, since he was elected, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell stood by as a House subcommittee once again killed bills that would have created such a commission.
Now, with control of the General Assembly divided between the two political parties, there is a better opportunity for a more even-handed approach to redistricting-as well as the opportunity for more deals to be struck behind closed doors by incumbents of both parties.
One thing is for sure: a lot is at stake-including the very vibrancy of our democratic system of government.
Since 2005, Sara Fitzgerald has served on the League of Women Voters of Virginia’s Redistricting Reform Study Committee. The views expressed here are her own.