Although the process used to offer a mid-term redistricting in of Senate seats in Virginia is quite unusual, anyone who actually cares about democracy in principle should welcome it. The 2011 Senate redistricting plan was an utter disaster begging for a fix, and it is a rare credit to Senate Republicans to for once actually shoulder the burden of standing for principle instead of rolling over on a bad idea just to maintain some level of actually non-existent “collegiality” within the chamber. This is quite an unexpected and positive change for them.
Although public hearings were held across the state leading up to the 2011 redistricting of Senate lines, not one iota of input from those meetings actually made it into the plan that Senator George Barker crafted on behalf of Dick Saslaw and dropped as a “done deal” on the General Assembly. The initial plan Barker crafted drew the threat of a veto from Governor McDonnell, but after a bit more back-room wrangling, that initial plan was adopted in almost its entirety, even with the parts that Republicans decried as egregious violations of the civil rights of Virginians and contrary to the law.
And what a disaster of a plan that was. For weeks we lampooned the idea that in order to traverse several districts without leaving the district boundaries you had to use a boat not once, but several times. RPV put up a site during the debate comparing district boundaries to Rorschach ink blots and asking visitors to see if they could tell the difference. Districts snaked hither and yon, and the during the first elections under that new map plenty of people hadn’t had a chance to see or even hear about the candidates for office. People in Alexandria shared Senators with people in Prince William County, and other people in Haymarket shared Senators with, of all the strange places, Westmoreland County. That plan remains one of the worst examples of gerrymandering in Virginia history, and it is unfathomable that any court could have thought it lawful.
So in a surprise move Senator Watkins offered a floor amendment to a House-passed bill left over from the last session to fix this mess. The new boundaries are tremendously improved over the existing lines, making districts more compact, having them conform to community boundaries, and remove almost every instance where someone has to either jump in a boat or cross over a railroad bridge to get from one part of the district to another. To help the plan pass legal muster, it even creates an additional minority-majority district south of Richmond, something that liberals were extremely concerned about with the existing plan and yelled about for some time. This is a vast improvement over the current situation, even if it’s still as imperfect as the result of any political process is likely to be.
Democrats are predictably rather upset about this, as the horrible gerrymander currently in place was drawn solely to protect their chances to win in these insane districts. They claim this will destroy the typical collegiality of the Senate, as if Democrat leader Dick Saslaw has ever been interested in promoting collegiality at any time when he thought he was fighting for something important, even going to the point of threatening to shut down state government during a budget dispute last session because his tax hikes were rejected. ”Collegiality,” to the extent it has existed at all during Saslaw’s reign, has been utterly useless, serving no useful purpose for the citizens of the Commonwealth other than providing the occasional amusement of Senators whining about how they might not get their way. Effective governance from the Senate instead would be a refreshing alternative.
Was this a surprise? You bet. Is this unusual? You bet. Is it the right thing to do? Absolutely, as the current Senate lines are a complete disgrace and this needs to be fixed unless the standard we are to set for our reverence for civil rights depends on how tolerable that injustice may be for our elected officials to bear if the alternative means making Dick Saslaw and Don McEachin mad at you.
If Dick Saslaw had established a process that protected civil rights, ensured minorities adequate political representation, and didn’t fragment communities of interest into balkanized regions in the first place, none of this would have been necessary. If anyone is at fault for this state of affairs, it is Barker, who created this problem, and Saslaw, who demanded he do so. That Republicans step in and fix the mess is a good thing, no matter how much whining ensues from Saslaw and his minions.
The Senate did a good job for Virginia this time. I hope this is the kind of Senate we’re going to see from now on, rather than the roll-over-and-play-dead one we’ve become so accustomed to.
UPDATE: For those concerned about the constitutionality of a mid-term redistricting, the Northern Virginia Lawyer has a very informative post on the subject.
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