Politics play a role in almost every human interaction. Sometimes that means partisan political maneuvering, sometimes it means working to influence an outcome in the workplace and sometimes it simply means viewing an issue through our own, subjective prism. Regardless of the setting, it is human nature to vie for advantage.
So it comes as no surprise that as the Virginia legislature grapples with the issue of redistricting based on the 2010 census, Democrats and Republicans are competing for the upper hand. The current mechanism for redistricting is strictly a political process of to the winners belong the spoils: The party that controls each chamber gets to guide the redrawing of boundaries for that body. That means the Republican-controlled House will get to choose a redistricting plan of its liking and the Democrat-led Senate likewise. Both houses must approve plans for state districts, as well as for Congressional districts. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has veto power over plans for all of them.
Not surprisingly, the plans that have been submitted by the two chambers are designed to enhance the control of the dominant party. In the Senate, four current Republican senators are squeezed into two districts, while left-leaning Alexandria would have three senators representing parts of the city rather than the current two (retiring Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30) and Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-35)). Conversely, Alexandrias influence in the Republican-controlled house would diminish as the city would go from three delegates to two (with delegate Adam Ebbin (D-49) being the odd man out).
Sometimes a partisan approach to redistricting can backfire, as in 1991 when Democrats redistricted then-Congressman George Allen (R) out of his Charlottesville-area seat. Allen turned the tables by running for and winning Virginias governorship in 1993. Other times, a party can overplay its hand and face either a gubernatorial veto or a legal challenge to its redistricting handiwork.
Cries arise for non-partisan or bi-partisan redistricting after every census and in each election cycle. We have argued for that approach in these pages, as purely political redistricting inevitably results in making seats safer for incumbents and dominant parties. Election cycles where voters feel that their ballots dont matter lead to voter apathy and disenfranchisement.
Examples of non-partisan redistricting exist: States like Iowa and Arizona have been touted for their approach to redistricting. Right now in Virginia, less partisan alternatives are available, but are being largely ignored. Both a bipartisan commission appointed by McDonnell and the University of Richmond have proposed redistricting plans that are much more geographically compact and less overtly political than the ones that are likely to pass.
And yet, because we are political creatures, the reality is a perfect system doesnt exist. Even commissions designed to negate partisanship are comprised of subjective humans with their own biases. In addition, appointed commissions, no matter how well intentioned, are not directly accountable to voters for their actions.
In the end, maybe Virginia is best off with the very Jeffersonian notion of political accountability. Perhaps the imperfect system of electoral victors getting the spoils is actually best. Presidents should be able to appoint federal judges with minimal interference, legislative majorities should be able to pass legislation without the opposition bolting and state governments should control redistricting. And if any of them overreach, theres always the next election.