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Richmond Times Dispatch: Hope, Toscano & Ward: Current 10-Year Plan is Fundamentally Flawed Print

OP/ED Written By Delegates Patrick Hope, David Toscano, and Jeion Ward

Published:  Friday, June 24, 2011

We teach our children that in a democracy, the public chooses its legislators. Recent redistricting in Virginia turned this concept on its head; in our process, it is the legislators who choose their constituents, rather than the other way around.

Every 10 years, the U.S. Constitution requires each state to redraw its legislative districts to account for growth and shifts in population. Our General Assembly is in the midst of this process, having just completed drawing new state districts and with congressional districts soon to follow. It is a partisan political process; Virginia's maps are drawn by the party in control, and this cycle was no exception.

We believe that Virginia's redistricting plan is fundamentally flawed for the following reasons:

The Governor's Redistricting Commission recommendations were ignored. Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed a bipartisan redistricting commission made up of academics, former judges, former lawmakers and other experts to offer an alternative redistricting plan. After months of hearing public testimony, the McDonnell Commission offered various proposals to the Virginia General Assembly for consideration. These recommendations were completely ignored.

The plan advantages incumbents and discourages competition. There are more "safe" seats now than before redistricting, making this more of an incumbency-protection exercise than anything else. Beyond that, while Hispanic-Latino, African-American and Asian-American communities have nearly doubled in certain parts of Northern Virginia, the new 40th, 42nd and 86th Districts in Fairfax County dilute the voting power of these populations. Even more disturbingly, in Prince William County, where the Census shows that minorities make up more of the population than whites, the 51st District has cut its minority voting population nearly 35 percent. There are similar examples across the commonwealth. This "racial dilution" has the effect of minimizing the voting strength of minorities and denies them equal opportunity to participate in the political process.

The plan violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Voting Rights Act. Virginia is one of 16 states required to submit its plan to the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure its compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Unfortunately, Justice recently approved the House plan as it pertains to the Voting Rights Act, but this action should not offer any comfort for Virginia voters.

One important recommendation from the McDonnell Commission was to create an additional majority-minority House district over and above the 12 that currently exist. The 13th majority-minority district would have contained approximately 53 percent African-Americans. This recommendation was promptly dismissed without any assessment of its viability or public discussion. Even though the Voting Rights Act requires additional majority-minority districts be created where practical, the McDonnell Commission's recommendation for a 13th district was completely ignored and no consideration was given. Another proposal would have created a 14th majority-minority district in the Southwest part of the commonwealth containing over 50 percent minority voters, but the authors of the House plan also failed to explore the viability of this alternative.

Finally, the House failed to analyze whether the existing 12 minority-majority districts could be maintained through the decade. The failure to perform a basic minority voting analysis raises the question of whether the existing 12 minority-majority districts will remain viable over the next decade, not to mention whether a 13th or 14th minority district could have been drawn.

In conclusion, a bipartisan commission approach was preferable to the gerrymandering incumbency protection approach embraced by the General Assembly. Our ultimate goal must be to ensure each voter gets an equally effective voice in the political process and that we adhere to the Voting Rights Act — all under the guiding principle of "one man, one vote." We believe the House plan fails to meet that standard.

Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, and Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, are members of the Virginia House of Delegates.