Virginia redistricting reform made strides forward this month with two cases concerning illegal gerrymandering — the drawing of district lines to benefit a state legislature’s majority political party to ensure reelection.
The first case, stemming from a complaint filed in September 2015, is awaiting a Richmond Circuit Court judge’s ruling after final arguments were heard last Wednesday.
The plaintiff is represented by OneVirginia2021, an organization advocating for fair redistricting in Virginia. The complaint alleges 11 districts’ lines are drawn to illegally gerrymander voters. The defendants are state election officials, represented by the office of Attorney General Mark Herring and a private law firm BakerHostetler, who argue the lines are drawn fairly and constitutionally.
In Virginia, congressional and state legislative district lines are drawn by the General Assembly after the state’s census data is released. This redistricting strategy has been criticised for years by voters and lawmakers who argue it encourages gerrymandering.
“We had a fair hearing of our evidence that the General Assembly did not account for the constitutional requirement of compactness to any serious degree when drawing the 2011 maps,” said Brian Cannon, Executive Director of OneVirginia2021, “OneVirginia2021 called out districts drawn by Democrats and Republicans for these violations and maintain that these districts belong to Virginians, not to any party or politician.”
- Mark Braden, an attorney for the House of Delegates, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the 2011 district lines complied with the law, and that if the plaintiffs wanted to change the way lines are drawn the legislature can amend the Constitution.
“What’s being requested of this court is a social science experiment,” Braden told the Times-Dispatch.
The U.S. Supreme Court also handed down its opinion in Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, another Virginia gerrymandering case this month. The Court’s opinion also challenges Virginia’s 2011 redistricting plan, which the plaintiffs allege gerrymanders 12 state districts on the basis of racial demographics.
“In the challanges’ view, this approach foreclosed a holistic analysis of each district and led the District Court to give insufficient weight to the 55 percent (Black Voting Age Population) target and other relevant evidence that race predominated,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Court’s majority opinion. “This court agrees.”
The SCOTUS concluded the lower court did not apply the appropriate standards when deciding if the new district lines were constitutional. The Justices have sent the case back to the lower courts to reexamine and determine if the legislative lines show any signs of gerrymandering.
Mary Lee is a senior studying journalism. She currently interns for RVAmag and GayRVA.com, in addition to writing for the CT. She previously worked as a makeup artist at Darkwood Manor, did lighting design at Trackside Theater (where she is now on the Board of Directors) and photographed for the Page News and Courier.
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