Del. Fowler, You Got It All Wrong!
From Brian Cannon
Many of you have recently gotten an e-mail from Del. Buddy Fowler, your member of the House of Delegates, concerning our request that he support a more equitable process of redistricting. I want to thank you for petitioning him and while we are grateful he wrote a response, much of his response is either factually incorrect or misses the point. You deserve better information than that. And so I have written in responses to correct the Delegate's misinformation and also to equip you— and those who care about reform— with the right information and talking points to handle these common misconceptions. My responses are in blue.
Please feel free to email or call me if you have questions. (804.240.9933; firstname.lastname@example.org)
E-Mail Response from Del. Fowler (My responses are in blue.)
Thank you for your email and for sharing your concerns on the issue of legislative redistricting. The proponents of legislation that establishes a “bi-partisan” redistricting commission, or some similar alternative, believe the existing districts are inherently drawn in such a way as to prohibit fair elections. Proponents also believe changing the current process by removing the Legislature will produce more evenly drawn districts and therefore lead to greater participation on the part of candidates and the voters. The assumption will lead to better representation and therefore better government.
First and foremost, based on my years of experience with the legislative process, going on 15, I am not convinced that the above assumptions are true. The current process, which is mandated by the Virginia Constitution, provides the General Assembly with the authority to redraw the legislative and congressional districts after each 10 year Federal census. Any redistricting plan that is passed by the General Assembly must already meet certain stringent guidelines.
(The current guidelines aren't stringent. Look at the 72nd House of Delegates District or the 37th Senate District - our state constitution requires districts be compact. That's a constitutional requirement. Yet, those two districts (among many) are horribly non-compact. There is nothing stringent about our current guidelines. And these two districts also have no Voting Rights Act issue with them either, which is often the excuse for more political shenanigans.)
There are approximately 8 million people in the state of Virginia, which means any House of Delegates redistricting plan must create districts comprised of approximately 80,000 people with only a slight deviation. State law already requires redistricting plans to consider local government and geographic boundaries to the greatest extent possible.
(That is not true. There is no state law with such requirements, but it'd be a good thing if there were! That's what we're proposing. There are efforts to avoid splitting precincts as well. If any attempt was made to avoid splitting precincts, I missed it. Virginia went from 75 splits in 2001 to 224 in 2011. Horrible! A 3x increase in split precincts.)
Additionally, any redistricting plan passed by the General Assembly must comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act. As part of that requirement, the plan has to provide for districts that contain a majority of “minority” voters, and the redistricting proposal will also have to be signed off by the Justice Department.
(There is no longer pre-clearance by the DOJ. The US Supreme Court struck down a few years ago. And in the Alabama case from two years ago the court did away with the absolute requirement for minority voters to be in a district where they are a majority.)
This requirement alone impacts the boundaries of virtually every legislative district in Virginia ensuring that any redistricting plan offered by the General Assembly will have its detractors.
(Untrue again. This VRA requirement, while admittedly a moving target, only impacts districts in Hampton Roads, eastern Richmond down to Petersburg, and the eastern half of south side Virginia. That's it. HD72 and SD 37, that I mentioned above have nothing to do with that issue.)
Finally, certain demographic/political realities will remain no matter how or by whom the process is handled. Realistically, some districts will always vote one way, or the other, no matter what. For example, can a redistricting plan be conceived that can potentially elect a Republican from Arlington or a Democrat from Hanover to the General Assembly? I don’t think so. Have any states which choose to do this process differently demonstrated any evidence of a ‘fairer’ process, better representation or better government than Virginia? I do not believe that any have.
(We are not an outcome-oriented group. We have never, nor would ever, say that you could make parts of Virginia that are one color turn to another. What we do say is politicians shouldn't carve up these districts to artificially make them what they're not. We want to keep communities and local jurisdictions whole so that they can elect a candidate of their choice - regardless of who that candidate is. And yes, about a dozen other states have done this and competition and responsiveness increases when they do it. Right now we have a system where 71/100 House Districts and 20/40 Senate Districts weren't even challenged by a major party opponent. Where all 122 incumbents seeking re-election in 2015 were re-elected. Where we only have one competitive Congressional seat out of 11. Politicians have wrung competition completely out of the system. Fairly drawn districts don't make everything automatically competitive, but will ensure that politicians aren't intentionally driving it out from our political system. Competition is a good thing.)
In closing, I am prepared to fulfill all of my legislative obligations required of me by the Virginia Constitution, and I do not believe it is prudent to pass those obligations over to an unelected body.
(We have proposals that would keep the authority within the General Assembly, but establish some of those clear guidelines mentioned above (that aren't part of the law). Not all that we propose is a commission. We believe reform also includes better rules.)
I hope that you will find my explanation helpful to understanding my reasoning on this issue. If I can be of future assistance, please let me know.
Delegate Hyland F. Buddy Fowler Jr.