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Gerrymandering: A Plague on Both Our Parties

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An example of a gerrymandered state
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The Virginian-Pilot

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By Robert Weiner and Tom Sherman

Little known fact: Although voters cast 1.7 million more votes for Democratic candidates than for Republicans in U.S. House of Representatives races in 2012, according to the Federal Election Commission, Republicans gained a 234-201 majority in the House.

In order to leave election votes "taken by states" as provided in the Constitution, federal courts have allowed state legislatures to engage in "gerrymandering" since 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry oversaw the creation of a sprawling congressional district that snaked borders around pockets of supporters. The new boundary vaguely resembled a salamander, so reporters seized on the governor's bizarre progeny and coined the term "Gerry-mander."

Gerrymandering is a plague on both our parties. Virginia's 3rd Congressional District, recently declared unconstitutional, is a case in point. Initially, Democrats championed the process, gerrymandering districts to maintain minority populations that vote blue. Due to this strategy, Democrats controlled Congress for 40 years, from 1955 to 1995.

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Republicans learned the lesson - and got better at gerrymandering than Democrats. The GOP realized it could overcrowd districts created by Democrats with disproportionate amounts of minority populations. By increasing numbers in a safe Democratic district, Republicans reduced the influence of the liberal voting bloc in both state politics and congressional elections. Republicans controlled the U.S. House from 1995 until losing election cycles in 2006 and 2008; however, the party retained its power in state legislatures, and doubled down on redrawing favorable maps after the 2010 Census.

A 2013 study by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which claims to be the "largest caucus of Republican state leaders in the country," boasts that the disparity between the 1.7 million votes cast for Democratic candidates and the resulting Republican majority in 2012 was an "aberration" purposely created. The committee admits it focused on new district boundaries in states with "the most redistricting activity," thereby instilling a "Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade."

This month, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that the 2011 redistricting effort in Virginia was unconstitutional, specifically the 3rd District, comprising five geographically separate locations between Portsmouth and Richmond that have only the James River and a high concentration of African American populations in common.

Judge Allyson Duncan noted in the ruling that the legislature's redistricting process is "not a license for the State to do whatever it deems necessary to ensure continued electoral success." Legislators now must redraw district boundaries by April 2015.

"I hope and expect the General Assembly will more equitably and appropriately balance the influence of all Virginia's voters, as mandated by this decision, when they redraw the 3rd Congressional District and adjacent congressional districts next session," said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, the Democrat who represents the 3rd District.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat, concluded that the ruling "demonstrates the need to get partisan politics out of how Virginia draws its legislative boundaries."

The General Assembly had multiple nonpartisan solutions to choose from. There was a map drawn by the Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting, appointed by former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, as well as multiple submissions in a statewide collegiate competition featuring such schools as the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia. Rather than allowing the divided legislature to toy with where people vote for partisan gain, we must devise an independent redistricting system before risking further voter disenfranchisement.

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After reviewing Virginia's redistricting efforts, nonpartisan commissions "improve upon the current districts in dramatic ways without sacrificing equal population standards or voting rights considerations," a 2011 study by Christopher Newport University concluded. However, the General Assembly instead passed a map drawn by the conservative legislature, even though, according to the report, it would "make legislative districts less compact, split more counties and cities, and separate commonsense communities."

McAuliffe started to tackle the problem before the courts did in late September. He appointed a 10-member bipartisan board to review Virginia's ethics rules and redistricting policies, reminding the commission that fair voting practices "are the essential covenant of democracy."

Gerrymandering is the byproduct of a failed democracy. Every voter should be guaranteed a voice that matters and is heard. Citizens need to strip partisan state legislatures of their control over redistricting before the legislature strips the citizens of their power to vote.

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