It is hard to imagine that a state senate district, with approximately 110,000 voters, could stretch from the southern border of the city of Alexandra to the eastern boundary of the City of Manassas, sprawling 40 miles across Fairfax and Prince William counties, two of Virginia’s most populated jurisdictions.
But that is exactly what Virginia’s 39th state senate district does. Political observers speculate the district was designed specifically for Sen. Jay O’Brien (R-39) during the last round of political redistricting in 2001.
O’Brien was a state delegate serving in the Town of Clifton area and aspiring to higher office. The Republicans held the Governors office, the House of Delegates and the state senate in 2001, which meant they could draw the new political district however they wanted.
From a cohesive community standpoint, the 39th district makes very little sense. The communities is the western part of the district have very little in common with communities in the eastern part of the district, according to Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor who has studied political redistricting in California, Arizona and several Midwestern states.
"There was clearly partisan gerrymandering in that district. They were trying to balance the Republicans in the western end of the district and the Democrats in the eastern end of the district with conservative parts of Prince William. … Prince William was really meant to anchor the western part," he said.
But O’Brien’s district is hardly the only one that was created for one particular political party and or with one specific person in mind. Like many other states, the Virginia state legislature creates the new congressional and state legislative districts, which must be approved by the governor, every ten years, based on new census data.
During the last round of redistricting in 2001, the Republicans drew several "safe" districts to maximize their votes in the U.S. Congress and the state legislature. The Democrats have said that the current districts have created a political imbalance that does not serve voters.
"Virginia is really a 50/50 state now but we still have eight members of our congressional delegation that are Republicans. That is not a function of the will of the people. That is a function of the lines drawn by the party," said Jesse Ferguson, chief of staff to the House of Delegates Democratic caucus leader, Del. Brian Moran.
But 2001 was "payback" for what had happened in 1991, when the Democrats were in control of the General Assembly, said U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11).
The Democrats held a majority in the General Assembly for almost all of the 20th century but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the redistricting process turned partisan and the Democrats used their majority to throw several Republicans out of the House of Delegates, he said.
"The district I am in was really drawn by my predecessor, Leslie Bryne, for herself," said Davis, who added that he made some "adjustments" to its boundaries in 2001.
For some people pushing nonpartisan redistricting, it is not about which party did what and what time.
"The argument is that when the Democrats were in power, they did it too. There is some truth to that but a certain point you have to break the cycle," said Del. Bob Brink (D-48) who has advocated for redistricting reform and sits on the House Committee of Rules and Elections.
Moran, Brink and a few others, mostly Democrats in the House of Delegates, have proposed moving toward a less polarized redistricting process that would benefit both parties.
"[The current process] pushes people to the extremes and away from the kind of consensus we need to get things done in Richmond," said Brink.
Redistricting reform proposals range from creating a bipartisan committee of legislators to picking a panel of political neutral citizens to redraw the districts.
Several of the reform suggestions come from policies implemented by other states, including Arizona and Vermont, that are already exploring new strategies for redistricting.
"Virginia would be joining other states, who are considering this right now," said McDonald, who helped Arizona devise its new method of redistricting.
State officials use a variety of criteria to create new political districts.
In additional to tightening the grip on power on their political party, some place an emphasis on trying to keep communities or the political boundaries of smaller municipalities – such as towns, cities and counties – in mind. Others use natural boundaries, such as a river or mountain range, when engaging in redistricting, said McDonald.
Certain states try to create as many competitive districts as possible or aim for "partisan fairness," where the state legislative and congressional districts are created with the state’s total political make up in mind. In other words, if a state voted 65 percent Republican, the officials would try to draw political districts that created a state legislature and congressional delegation that was also 65 percent Republican, said McDonald.
Trying to create a racial balance or protect incumbents – regardless of party – can be also be major factors in redistricting, according to McDonald.
A few states, like Iowa, have also made the shape of political districts a top priority. These legislators aim to create compact, "pretty" districts, said McDonald. But districts that look nice on paper have tended to benefit Republicans in many states, since Democrats are often concentrated and less spread out, he said.
The public typically connects oddly shaped districts with gerrymandering for political purposes but McDonald said this might not be the case. Districts drawn, for example, with cities or town boundaries in mind can be oddly shaped and those created to promote competitiveness do not necessarily look nice, he said.
"Sometimes there has to be a little creative line drawing to get a fair map," he said.
All political redistricting has to abide by a few rules. Congressional districts must be "single member," meaning the only one person can be elected from each, and contain the same number of constituents.
State legislative districts are given a little more leeway – they don’t have to be single member districts and only have to be within 5 percent of each other in terms of population, said McDonald.
Both congressional and state legislative districts are also confined by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which seeks to protect minority voting power and usually leads to the creation of majority minority districts, said McDonald.
Virginia Democrats have been submitting redistricting reform bills since 2001 but have not gotten very much traction with the Republicans in the majority.
None of the 14 House redistricting reform bills got out of committee in 2007 and only one of the Senate bills made it to full vote in that branch this year.
The Senate proposal, which would have created a bipartisan committee out of state legislators to redraw the districts, passed 22-18 in the upper chamber. It then died in the House’s Committee on Rules and Elections.
"Unless you can find a way to do it totally objectively by a computer or something, I just don’t see the point," Del. Dave Albo (R-42), a member of the House Committee on Rules and Elections, which receives most of the redistricting reform proposals.
Passing redistricting off to a group of private citizens or creating a special panel seems like abdicating responsibility and transferring the politically charged situation to someone else.
"It can be nonpartisan but then no one is accountable. At least in politics, if you don’t like the result, you can throw people out," said Davis.
But Republicans in the House of Delegates could be more receptive to a nonpartisan redistricting bill in 2008. The Democrats will have control of the senate for the next round of redistricting and the Republicans may be interested in assuring an even playing field moving forward, said Ferguson.
"We have a divided government for the first time in 10 years. It is in everyone’s interest to have fair rules," he said.
Yet, a lot of questions remain about whether Democrats in the House of Delegates will have the support of Senate Democrats, let alone Republicans.
All but one Democrat supported Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-25) bipartisan redistricting reform proposal when it came to the floor last spring but Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-35), who is likely to be the majority leader, has indicated that he may not support similar proposals in the future.
"I am not real keen on [redistricting reform.] I think it is probably better left where it is. We made the gains that we did in districts drawn by the other party," said Saslaw.
Republicans said they expect the senate Democrats to be less earnest about redistricting reform now that they hold the majority in their own chamber.
"As soon as they lost the majority [in 1999] they started putting bills in. I would be very surprised if we saw any redistricting bills coming from the senate," said Albo.
At least one senate Republican, Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37), plans to bring forward a redistricting bill of his own. Cuccinelli, who is interested in using the Iowa model that focuses on shape of districts, supported Deeds’ bill last year and tried to introduce another redistricting bill in 2006.
"Fundamentally, I think it is the right approach," said Cuccinelli, who added that more competition leads more a active political party and volunteers.
Redistricting is not necessarily any less partisan in cases where power in divided across two parties. In New York – where the Republicans control the senate and the Democrats control the house – the two parties have agreed to let each one redraw the lines for their own chamber, said McDonald.
"The Republicans in New York have been in control of the senate for 30 years and they are able to retain control because both sides draw the maps for their own chambers. That type of arrangement is probably not something the produces a lot of competition," said McDonald.
Some elected officials, including Saslaw, are leery of nonpartisan redistricting reform not because of party control but because it does not necessarily take into account incumbency. In Arizona, for example, the redistricting committee is not allowed to know where incumbents live, so it doesn’t become a factor in how the districts are drawn, said McDonald.
Despite the amount of time and attention given to redistricting efforts, control over the districting process does not guarantee victory.
O’Brien lost his seat to George Barker on Nov. 6 despite the Republicans carving out his district specifically for him six years ago.
Even though the Republicans had virtually all the power to draw new political districts after the last census, the Democrats were still able to win the senate and pick up four seats in the house this election.
"The partisanship of a district changed underneath the feet of some incumbents in Northern Virginia. Redistricting is good only up to a point," said McDonald.
It is very difficult to tell what might be happen during the 2011 redistricting.
"[Congressional redistricting] could be done in any number of ways. You could move the first district up and my district south. Fair redistricting is in the eye of the beholder," said Davis.
Due to population shifts, Arlington County and the city of Alexandria may lose representatives and Prince William, Loudoun and Stafford counties are likely to gain representation, he added.
But if Virginia political parties cannot come to a consensus, the redistricting process could be taken over by the courts, leaving a lot up in the air, according to Davis.