Redistricting panel warns against gerrymandering

Three people huddled around a painted map of Virginia that hung on a wall in a meeting room in the Capitol. A young man gestured animatedly toward certain counties and legislative districts while his audience nodded in approval.

“And what did you do with Roanoke?” Judy Ford Wason, an adviser to the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting, asked the young man.

He suddenly stopped at the question, betraying his uncertainty.

“I … I can’t remember,” confessed Brian Cannon, a third-year law student from the College of William and Mary.

Cannon and first-year law student Brian Rothenburg were at the General Assembly to present to the commission their law school’s redistricting map for the Virginia Redistricting Competition, a contest among colleges and universities to redraw the state’s political boundaries.

Friday’s presentation was part of a series of public forums that the redistricting commission is hosting to encourage citizen involvement in the redistricting process. The panel will hold three more forums over the next week.

The advisory commission was created by Gov. Bob McDonnell to propose how to redraw Virginia’s legislative and congressional districts in light of population changes over the past decade. The governor asked the panel to do its job without regard to political allegiance or concern for protecting parties or incumbents.

However, the real power over redistricting rests with the General Assembly. Legislators will meet in a special session on the matter next month.

Members of the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting said lawmakers should be cautious when attempting to draw their new districts.

“There is no excuse for less than mathematical precision,” said William Hurd, a legal consultant to the commission. He emphasized the importance of ensuring the “one man, one vote” principle when carving out districts.

Legislators should not divide minority communities with the intent to take away their “ability to elect the candidate of their choice,” Hurd said.

To show how to redraw political districts in nonpartisan ways, the commission invited colleges and universities to participate in the Virginia Redistricting Competition.

Thirteen schools – including George Mason, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth universities – took up the challenge.

Each had at least one team of students prepare a set of maps. The students presented their maps to the commission at Friday’s forum.

As the website for the Virginia Redistricting Competition explains, redistricting usually is done by the political party in power. “This process has led to increased gerrymandering and has allowed political parties to increase their majorities, effectively limiting competition — the foundation of a healthy functioning democracy — and causing partisan gridlock.”

The students’ entries in the competition will be judged by two national experts on redistricting: Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. The winners will receive up to $2,000.

Besides the students, a handful of state delegates attended Friday’s forum of the redistricting commission. They included Democrats Joe Morrissey of Highland Springs and Bob Brink of Arlington and John O’Bannon of Henrico County.

Morrissey condemned both parties for gerrymandering districts to protect incumbents.

“It’s disgraceful that politicians are selecting who they want to represent,” Morrissey said. “We’ve got this wonderful panel and these students with their wonderful plans, and the politicians aren’t going to pay any attention to it at all.”

Future Redistricting Forums
The Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting will hold one more forum at 7 p.m. on March 21 at Norfolk State University. The forum will be in Ballroom 149 of the New Student Center.

The 11-member commission plans to present its report on April 1, a week before the General Assembly holds a special session on redistricting.
For information, contact commission staff member Steven Jones at 804-201-5174 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address); or the commission’s chairman, Bob Holsworth, at 804-839-8782 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
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