Virginia governor Robert McDonnell has vetoed the state legislature’s redistricting plan. He has no beef with the house-passed plan, but the senate redistricting plan approved by the upper chamber is troublesome indeed.
Virginia’s legislature is split, with Republicans controlling the house of delegates and Democrats controlling the senate. The house passed its bill on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis, 86 to 8. But the senate passed its plan on a pure party-line vote.
In an April 15 letter to the house of delegates, McDonnell expresses concern over the lack of compactness of the senate districts and the fact that they do not “preserve locality lines and communities of interest.” The districts in the senate plan are indeed less compact than the current districts, and there is a 25 percent increase in the number of split localities in the new senate map.
The most significant problem, however, is not mentioned until the second page of McDonnell’s letter. Under the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” requirement, districts are supposed to be as equal in population as practicable while “taking into consideration other important and legitimate redistricting factors.”
The bipartisan house plan has an average deviation in population of only plus or minus 1 percent. But, McDonnell notes, the Democratic senate plan has larger deviations “without any apparent legitimate justification” such as “preserving local jurisdiction lines, creating compact districts, or maintaining communities of interest.” In fact, McDonnell concludes, the plan “systematically underpopulates districts in slow-growth regions of the state (urban and rural) while overpopulating districts in high-growth areas of the Commonwealth (suburban).”
This last criticism is eerily similar to the criticism leveled against Georgia’s state redistricting plan, put in place after the 2000 census when the Democratic party still controlled the state legislature. In 2004 in Cox v. Larios, the Supreme Court affirmed a district-court finding that Georgia’s plan was unconstitutional, violating the “one person, one vote” requirement.
Democrats engaged in “an intentional effort to allow incumbent Democrats to maintain or increase their delegation, primarily by systematically underpopulating the districts held by incumbent Democrats, by overpopulating those of Republicans,” the Court found. They did this by “favoring rural and inner-city interests at the expense of suburban areas north, east, and west of Atlanta.”
In other words, Virginia’s Democratic senate has followed in the footsteps of their Georgian colleagues, underpopulating Democratic strongholds and overpopulating Republican redoubts. The idea is to spread out Democratic voters to control more districts, while concentrating Republicans in fewer districts. In Georgia, this tactic allowed Democrats to retain control of the legislature even while losing state-wide contests to Republicans.
McDonnell has vetoed what appears to be an unconstitutional attempt by the Virginia senate to engage in the same type of redistricting that got Democrats in big trouble in the 2004 Larios decision.