POLITICS

Gerrymandering distorts Virginia's House makeup

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Take a look at Virginia's congressional delegation and you might think it's the same old reliably Republican state that backed 10 GOP presidential candidates in a row, starting with Richard Nixon in 1968.

But that 8-3 Republican advantage in the delegation is misleading. Democrats have won every recent statewide election. President Barack Obama broke the GOP winning streak and carried Virginia in 2008 and 2012. Both of the state's U.S. senators are Democrats. And last fall, Democrats swept the top three statewide offices - governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general - for the first time in 24 years.

"Virginia really stands alone when we talk about how rapidly this state has moved from a reliably red state to a purple state," said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. "The Democrats are clearly in the ascendancy and have rapidly moved from underdog status to really the dominant party in statewide elections. That's not reflected in the state House of Delegates and Congress because of gerrymandering."

The party in power at the Virginia General Assembly gets to draw congressional district boundaries every 10 years. While lawmakers are supposed to heed such high-minded principles as preserving common "communities of interest" and limiting the splitting of precincts, the reality is that forging a partisan advantage and protecting incumbents are the top priorities.

That's how increasingly Democratic Virginia wound up with an overwhelmingly Republican congressional delegation - although it wasn't easy.

Virginia's government was divided after the 2010 census, with Democrats holding a slim edge in the state Senate and Republicans controlling the House of Delegates and the governor's office. The two sides deadlocked on redistricting in 2011. By the following year Republicans had taken control of the Senate and were able to push through a redistricting plan that favored the GOP by packing Democrats into three districts.

Democrats complained bitterly that the new map increased the proportion of black residents in the black-majority 3rd District from 56 percent to about 60 percent, arguing that it illegally watered down minority voting strength in adjoining districts. However, the U.S. Justice Department - which at that time was required to review Virginia redistricting plans for compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act - approved the new districts.

"Republicans have proven they are much better at drawing lines to provide safe seats than winning statewide elections," Farnsworth said.

Proposals to cede redistricting to a bipartisan or nonpartisan commission have repeatedly failed in the General Assembly. This year, such legislation backed by Democrats died in a Republican-dominated House committee. The House Privileges and Elections Committee also isn't interested in hearing what Virginians think about the issue. It rejected a Senate-passed bill calling for a referendum on whether voters want a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

"Incumbents like to pick the voters" rather than have the voters pick them, Farnsworth said.

"No doubt the political health of Virginia would be much better with more competitive elections," Farnsworth said, but he added that lawmakers aren't likely to relinquish the raw political power that comes with redistricting anytime soon. "The stakes for incumbents are too great."

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