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Democrats Push for Nonpartisan Redistricting

Thanks to the 2001 redistricting, only five House of Delegates races in Northern Virginia are considered competitive.

Two years ago, Del. Steve Shannon (D-35), a 34-year-old former Fairfax County assistant prosecutor, was narrowly elected to his first term as a state legislator in the House of Delegates.

On Nov. 8, voters in the district — which includes Oakton and Vienna — will either re-elect Shannon or choose his Republican opponent, Jim Hyland, a 44-year-old attorney.

"There are only about 10 seats out of 100 in Virginia that are actually in play," Shannon said. "My district is one of them."

After the Republican-led redistricting in 2001, a solid 90 percent of Virginia's House legislative districts are comprised mostly of single-party voters.

"There aren't many swing seats and a big reason why is redistricting," said Toni Michelle Travis, a George Mason University professor of politics.

Following the U.S. Census each decade, the majority party in Virginia re-draws political boundaries to establish as many safe seats for itself as possible, while simultaneously drawing up as few safe seats as possible for the opposition.

Using high-tech mapping software four years ago, the Republicans drew the boundaries with unprecedented precision, incorporating demographics and voting history data down to individual neighborhoods.

"You can redistrict around a fireplug these days," said Del. Kris Amundson (D-44). "The technology is that sophisticated."

But despite the 2001 redistricting, a handful of battleground districts survived.

In these key districts, both parties have sent in armies of volunteers and campaign contributions are pouring in from across the state. This year, however, when all 100 House of Delegates seats are up for election, little deviation is expected from the current political make-up of 60 Republicans, 38 Democrats and two independents.

In Northern Virginia, only five races out of 22 are considered competitive by both parties, leaving more than 1.2 million residents of Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington and Alexandria without a strong choice.

In eight Northern Virginia districts, there is only one House of Delegates candidate, leaving more than 567,000 voters without any choice at all.

THE ISSUE OF NONPARTISAN redistricting in Virginia is becoming a top priority for the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area.

"We are unhappy with the way these districts have been drawn," said Sherry Zachry, the League's president. "The districts aren't drawn based on what's best for the voter."

During the summer, the Fairfax County chapter of the League conducted a study into nonpartisan redistricting, titled "Does Your Vote Really Count?" The study, adopted by the state-wide League of Women Voters' 2000 members, may spark a lobbying push by the League during the 2006 General Assembly session, Zachry said.

"I think the chances of the Virginia General Assembly adopting a new redistricting system in the next couple sessions is probably unlikely," she said. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try."

DURING THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY session early next year, the Democrats plan to push for nonpartisan redistricting.

"We must change the way our legislative districts are drawn in Virginia," said Del. Brian Moran (D-46), the Democrat's caucus chair.

By allowing the party in power to establish political boundaries, fewer races are competitive, which suppresses voter turnout, Moran said.

Moreover, he said, because lawmakers are in single-party districts, they have an incentive to be especially conservative or especially liberal. Legislators must play to their base, Moran said, because the only competition they are likely to face is from within their own party during primaries.

By pushing lawmakers to the extremes of their party — both Republican and Democrat — redistricting has indirectly fueled the bitter partisanship of the General Assembly, Moran said.

With a nonpartisan redistricting system that created more competitive districts, a greater number of Virginia voters would have a voice in how they are governed, Moran said.

In January, the Democrats will introduce a constitutional amendment that would implement an electoral system based on Iowa's.

In Iowa, the Legislative Service Bureau, a nonpartisan state agency, has drawn political boundaries since 1980 based primarily on geography, without considering voters' political affiliation or demographics. The agency's efforts are overseen by a five-person panel of non-office holders who are appointed by the state legislature. Over the past 25 years, the state has seen a high number of competitive state and federal races.

Five other states — Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, New Jersey and Vermont — have redistricting commissions, typically comprised of retired judges, which draw the legislative boundaries with the goal of minimizing partisan gerrymandering.

"Under our current system, I can tell you who the losers are — the voters of Virginia," said Del. Bob Brink, a Democrat who is unopposed thanks to the heavily Democratic 48th District in Arlington.

THE DEMOCRATS hope to have a nonpartisan electoral system in place in Virginia by 2011 — the next time the legislative boundaries will be re-drawn.

Republicans said that is not very likely. A bill introduced last session that would have simply studied the idea was promptly killed by the House Committee on Privileges and Elections.

"On the surface, it sounds so good. It sounds like flowers in the springtime," said Del. Dick Black (R-32). "But in practice, it's nothing but an attempt by the Democrats to get a partisan advantage."

Prior to 2001, the Democrats always controlled the General Assembly during the redistricting process and employed many of the same tactics against Republicans.

Del. Dave Albo (R-42) said partisan redistricting is simply part of the political process.

"I find it interesting that the Democrats are all into changing the redistricting law, when for 141 years they liked it just fine the way it was."

Albo said he doubts it is possible to find anyone who is truly nonpartisan to draw the political boundaries.

Even some Democrats acknowledge that turnabout could be construed as fair play.

"The Democratic Party, since Reconstruction, was kicking Republicans in the teeth," Shannon said.