In a Tom DeLay, Texas-style move, Republicans in the Virginia State Senate re-drew the legislative district lines without public notice or involvement. This action in the 20-20 divided body came on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday when Democratic Senator Henry Marsh who is one of Virginia's most prominent civil rights leaders was away attending President Obama's inauguration. The new map, if passed by the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and signed by the governor, would give Republicans an advantage in taking back control of the Senate which they hold now only by virtue of the lieutenant governor who is the presiding officer and tie breaker being a Republican. "Count this as a new low for hyper-partisanship, dirty tricks, and the unaccountable arrogance of power," is the way one newspaper editorial described the action.
Events that will occur after this column is written will dictate the final outcome. The speaker of the house could declare their new map to not be germane to the House bill to which it was attached because it clearly violates House rules that a bill encompass a single object. The governor could veto the bill because he has already expressed publicly that it is not the way to do business. The courts or the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act could intervene and invalidate the plan. Or voters could be left in districts with senators who would not be representing them after senatorial elections in 2015. Whatever the outcome, voters will once again find themselves selected by legislators rather than voters selecting legislators under the current approach to legislative redistricting. At the same time, there are bills being considered to suppress voting through new identification requirements, and bills including mine to make voting more accessible, are being defeated.
Most damaging to the legislative process is the loss of trust that comes from the secretive and contrived way the action was taken. While the House of Delegates has become entirely too infamous for political skirmishes, the State Senate has been relatively free of partisan controversy. There are numerous examples of bipartisan cooperation in the Senate in the past that have led to better government for Virginia. That spirit of cooperation has been badly damaged if not destroyed. Efforts to expand Medicaid and to establish a system for transportation funding have been put in serious jeopardy by this power move. Last year the House of Delegates was prominent on late-night comedy programs for its antics; now the State Senate is there.
If voters choose to return me to the House of Delegates next year I will re-introduce a bill I have introduced many times since 1982. It would establish an independent redistricting commission. There is too much interest in self-preservation for legislators to do legislative redistricting fairly. In the meantime, legislators need to act in a way that will not breach the public trust.