Walter Chidozie Anyanwu
The Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU hosted a screening Wednesday of the 2016 documentary film “GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy on its Head” by Bill Oglesby, assistant professor of journalism at the VCU Robertson School.
The film highlights the challenges posed by the current redistricting system, which creates an avenue for gerrymandering — the practice of carving up district boundaries by political groups with the aim of manipulating these districts to yield political advantage. With the midterm elections fast approaching, gerrymandering is one issue that has the potential to sway voters.
“It is very relevant,” said Oglesby on the importance of the film with regards to voting in the upcoming election.
The screening was followed by a discussion between event attendees Virginia state Del. Lamont Bagby and ACLU Executive Director Claire Gastañaga.
The midterms will see the election of the entire house of representatives for Virginia. This has always been the case every two years. The house of representatives is the body within Congress that is especially affected by gerrymandering.
“It’s definitely not the issue voters care the most about, but because of its impact on all of those issues that they do care about, it’s the most important issue that we have to deal with,” said Brian Cannon, Executive Director of One Virginia 2021. “Gerrymandering distorts our representative democracy in a way that makes it less representative of the people and more representative of whoever was in charge last time the [district] maps were being drawn.”
The conversation surrounding gerrymandering is often colored with negativity and skepticism as politicians on both ends of the political spectrum rely on it — while simultaneously being hindered by it.
“People are very angry and they’re very motivated to get to the polls,” Oglesby said. “Based on early voting, there has been higher participation than we’ve seen in a long time. However, this will pass and it’ll just be business as usual again. We should aim to get to a point where people do feel motivated to vote regardless of the political climate.”
Many have called for the current system to be handed over to an independent committee that would oversee the redistricting in the years to come. Organizations like One Virginia 2021 have proposed strategies for ensuring that an independent commission on redistricting can be as fair as possible.
“Our goal is to get an amendment to the Virginia constitution through,” Cannon said. “To do that, we have to get the people of Virginia to vote to end gerrymandering in November of 2020. That’s as soon as it can possibly happen. If we put that in the hands of Virginians, they’re going to vote overwhelmingly to do it and we’ll see a lot of momentum behind redistricting reform in Virginia.”
While voters may not be entirely familiar with this issue, it is still important for them to note that the voting issues they care about the most may or may not be addressed favorably. This depends on the inclination of their elected representatives.
“For the average voter — the majority of voters — gerrymandering is not on their radar,” Bagby said. “All they know is that the laws they want to be passed don’t get passed. While a majority of the citizens vote for Democrats in this state, the state is still run by Republicans, and that’s a result of gerrymandering. This puts gerrymandering at the forefront for those that are really paying attention to the political atmosphere in Virginia.”