Virginia's Redistricting News
Times: "Virginia blacks appeal ruling on redistricting."
An attorney for nine black Virginia residents yesterday
urged a federal appeals court to reinstate a lawsuit charging that the
General Assembly's 2001 redistricting plan illegally diluted black voting
strength in the 4th Congressional District.
"We would be opening the door to terrible mischief,
wouldn't we?" Judge Niemeyer said.
When it comes to competitive politics, Virginians face the future striding backward.
At a critical juncture in the stateís history, when a long-range vision for schools, transportation, and health services is at stake, competition in state legislative races earlier this month was practically nonexistent.
Fewer than 36 percent of the 140 seats up for grabs on Nov. 4 had major two-party competition. According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, as reported in The Washington Post, only Mississippi and Massachusetts had lower participation in 2002, when 45 states elected legislators.
Meanwhile, less than one-third of Virginiaís registered voters went to the polls. Thatís not surprising, given the dearth of competition. The dismal showing is more reminiscent of past decades, when the old Byrd Machine dominated Virginia politics, than reflective of a healthy, dynamic 21st century state.
Republicans and Democrats share the blame for this sorry state of affairs, though for different reasons.
Democrats played a similar game when they controlled the legislature. But in 2001 the advent of sophisticated computer software allowed the dominant party, in this case the GOP, to chisel districts with greater precision and far more predictable voting patterns than ever before.
Second, in this yearís elections, Democrats failed to craft a unifying message that might have propelled voters to the polls. Led by Gov. Mark Warner, a non-combative sort struggling to counter a GOP majority in the legislature, Democrats decided to compete district by district rather than rally around a broad vision.
That play-it-safe strategy garnered a minor Democratic gain of two legislative seats. But it did nothing to stir up broad enthusiasm in the electorate.
GOP activists pretend that so few voted because so many are satisfied with Republican leadership. Democrats hide behind the excuse that Republicans would have misrepresented a bold plan.
Both tactics may be strategically sound. But democracy is supposed to be about more than power plays and defensive strategies. Itís supposed to be about ideas.
Virginia needs leaders with the courage of their convictions. If Republicans are so sure that they speak for Virginia, then they shouldnít be afraid to turn redistricting over to a non-partisan entity such as a commission, as a few other states have done. And Democrats determined to be a worthy opposition party must resolve to stand for something.
Those who claim such fondness for democracy shouldn't be so fearful to give it a chance.
If voters in Annandale's Chapel precinct thought Tuesday's election would be about making and expressing choices, they were in for a distinct surprise.
The ballot showed one major-party candidate for state senator.
One for state delegate.
One for county supervisor.
One for School Board.
"We should have a choice," said Vernon Sones, recent past president of the Chapel Square West Civic Association, who at age 69 says he takes voting seriously enough to have cast a ballot in every election since he was 21. "The two-party system is the best."
Last week's voting across Virginia was marked by a significant absence of competition, with nearly two of every three state legislative seats lacking major-party opposition. That means Virginia had fewer contested elections than almost any other state, a review of election records shows.
The dearth of opponents this year matches the state's record for the lowest number of seats contested by the major parties since the modern, two-party era of Virginia politics began in the late 1960s.
Nowadays, with both parties viable and with political power split between a Democratic governor and a Republican-led legislature, the lack of choices for voters is viewed by many analysts as a puzzling and corrosive threat to meaningful elections.
"This is a near record for the two-party era in Virginia, but it's not a record to be proud of -- it's a disgrace," said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "The essence of democracy is competition."
Slightly more than 64 percent of the Virginia General Assembly elections this year lacked competition from one of the major parties. By contrast, the national average for state legislative elections was 37 percent in 2002, when 45 states held their legislative contests, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy, a group that engages in research and advocacy.
Politicians, party leaders and analysts offered a variety of explanations for the phenomenon in Virginia, with some attributing it to low delegate pay ($17,000), some citing the high costs of financing a legislative race and some drawing attention to the state's political culture.
But at the center of the discussion in the commonwealth and elsewhere in the nation is the subject of partisan redistricting.
In Virginia, as elsewhere, the dominant party in the legislature maps out the political districts, and does so in a manner that often creates almost impregnable districts for its members.
The proliferation of easy-to-use computer mapping has enabled party activists to cut up the districts in an ever more precise and favorable way -- a tactic often purposely used to discourage challengers.
"What you're seeing is a commentary on the power of redistricting," said Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "Politicians are getting better and better at drawing safe districts. To a challenger, it looks like a hopeless cause."
Of the 11 legislative chambers that changed hands from one party to another in 2002, Richie said, all were in states where districts were drawn by a commission or a court, not the legislature.
Virginia Democrats attribute their absence from many ballots this year to the lines Republicans drew in 2001 for the 100 House districts and 40 Senate districts. With campaign money limited, they said, it is better not to spend it on challenges in perilous political districts.
"If you look at all the gerrymandering that went on, it was shocking," said Mame Reiley, executive director of One Virginia, Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner's political action committee. "When the lines are drawn and it weighs heavily for the Republicans, you need Don Quixotes who are willing to make the fight."
Republican leaders, however, dismiss the Democrats' accusations about redistricting as partisan whining.
Shawn M. Smith, communications director for the Republican Party of Virginia, said Democrats have failed to provide challengers because they have no winning message.
"The Democratic claims that they have somehow lost their majority because of Republican redistricting are just a sorry excuse," he said, noting that steady Republican gains in the past three decades were achieved despite redistricting controlled by Democrats.
"It just so happens that, with the sheer number of Republicans, there is no opposition because the majority of Virginians support our leadership," Smith said. "If the Democrats had a positive message to run on, they could engage in the debate on the issues."
The cost of running a campaign for the Virginia legislature is also sometimes cited as an impediment to the recruitment of candidates.
The typical House candidate in Virginia spent about $71,000 on campaign expenses in 2001, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics, which collects and disseminates campaign finance data. Often, however, candidates spend much more, using some of their own money as well.
In this election, state Senate challenger David M. Hunt (R) took out a home equity loan and at one point had contributed about $200,000 of his own money, he said. He still lost.
"Even before you can talk about the issues, you have to get the money," said Edwin Bender, executive director of the Institute on Money in State Politics. "Some people think, 'Why would I want to fight the battle?' "
Political experts differed on why Virginia's elections rank among the nation's least competitive. Some noted that modern two-party politics came relatively late to the state, which was dominated by Democrats after Reconstruction until about 30 years ago. And some attributed the trend to a strain of elitism that runs through the state's political culture and history.
"We have in Virginia a culture of nonparticipation -- we have fewer candidates generally for all offices," Sabato said. "Virginia was built on the concept that a few are born to rule and most people are born to be ruled."
Underscoring that argument, he noted that the dearth of candidates is least apparent in Northern Virginia, what he characterized as "the least Virginian part of Virginia."
Whatever the cause, the number of Virginia legislative seats without major-party competition has risen since the early 1990s, when the percentage was about 40 percent.
The proportion of House seats uncontested by Republicans or Democrats was particularly high this year, at 68 percent.
Of the 45 states that had House elections in 2002, only two states had a higher proportion of seats without major-party competition: South Carolina, at 72 percent, and Massachusetts, at 69 percent.
For dedicated voters such as Sones, the lack of choice is a
fundamental flaw in the fabric of democracy. "When there's no competition,
then a person doesn't feel that they are being pressed -- they can pretty
much operate as they see fit," Sones said. "Everyone should be
The armchair political analysts and veteran pollsters
may be yawning just a bit, numbed by the prospect that today's elections
in Virginia aren't likely to shake up the partisan order in Richmond, even
though voters will be filling all 140 seats in the state legislature. Yet
Northern Virginians in particular have strong reasons not to fall asleep
at the switches, to cast ballots that could spell the difference when the
votes are tallied. A number of state Senate and House of Delegates
contests in this region are considered competitive; in addition, important
local elections will determine how counties provide services that
residents have come to expect.
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit that claimed Virginia lawmakers illegally diluted black voting strength when they redrew congressional boundaries in 2001.
Democrats claimed that the Republican-led reapportionment illegally ``packed'' blacks into a black-majority 3rd District while decreasing the 4th District's black population.
The 3rd District is represented by Rep. Robert C. ``Bobby'' Scott, the only black member of Virginia's congressional delegation. Republican Rep. J. Randy Forbes represents the 4th District.
Nine black citizens claimed in their lawsuit that the plan hurt the ability of black voters to elect a candidate of their choice in the 4th District. They wanted the black population there returned to about 40 percent from the 33.6 percent in the redrawn district.
U.S. District Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that states have wide latitude in drawing political boundaries. He also wrote that requiring courts to assess whether a certain minority percentage will affect an election could result in a flood of litigation.
``Members of any protected minority group could always launch a lawsuit to increase their presence from 15 percent to 20 percent, or from 20 percent to 25 percent, and argue that this increase will cause their candidate to prevail,'' Morgan wrote.
Laura Bland, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, said the decision was disappointing.
``We were certainly hoping the argument for strength in minority voting would be heard in court,'' she said.
Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore was pleased with the ruling, said his spokesman, Tim Murtaugh.
``We felt all along the map drawn by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor was perfectly constitutional,'' he said.
A civil rights committee has re-filed - in federal court this time - a lawsuit challenging the General Assembly's redistricting of the 4th Congressional District.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law contends the 2001 redistricting plan diluted black voting strength in the 4th District in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The committee filed suit last year in a state court in Petersburg but withdrew that suit in November. A spokeswoman said the committee felt it would have a better chance of success in a federal court.
The suit was re-filed in February in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Norfolk on behalf of nine registered voters who live in the 3rd or 4th districts. The suit asks the court to halt any congressional election in the 4th District until new boundaries are in place.
The next election is scheduled in 2004. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a Chesapeake Republican, holds the seat. He won it in a special election in June 2001 when he narrowly defeated Democrat L. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, who is black.
Lucas sought to oppose him last year when he ran for re-election but pulled out when she could not raise money.
A trial date has not been set, but the lawyers committee hopes the court will reach a decision before next year's election. Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. will hear the case. The 4th District stretches from Chesapeake west across Southside Virginia to Powhatan County.
In its suit, the lawyers committee says that the 2001 redistricting plan reduced the black population from 39 percent in the old 4th District to 33.6 percent in the new district.
"The 2001 redistricting plan decreases the number of African-Americans in the 4th Congressional District to the point at which African-American voters no longer have any effective opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice in congressional elections," the suit contends.
The black voters displaced by the 2001 plan were reassigned to either the neighboring 5th District or the 3rd District, according to the suit.
"Reassignment of black voters from the old 4th Congressional District to the 3rd Congressional District dilutes African-American voting strength not only by reducing black voting strength in the 4th Congressional District, but also by wasting the votes of African-Americans through packing into the 3rd Congressional District," the suit contends.
The 3rd District is represented by Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Newport News Democrat who is black. The district has a 54 percent majority black population.
The suit says the General Assembly rejected plans that would have increased black representation in the district.
The attorney general's office will defend the Virginia plan.
RICHMOND, Va. - The former executive director of Virginia's Republican Party pleaded innocent to charges alleging he eavesdropped on telephone conference calls involving Democratic legislators.
After his arraignment Tuesday, Edmund A. Matricardi III filed a motion asking that all charges be dismissed because, he said, the conference calls were open to the public.
It was not immediately known when U.S. District Judge James Spencer would respond to the motion.
Matricardi, 34, is charged with five counts involving the interception of electronic communications, each carrying up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He was released on his own recognizance and faces trial April 9.
Matricardi is accused of using an access code given to him by a disgruntled former state Democratic Party staffer to dial into an interstate conference call in which the Democrats were discussing legislative redistricting.
Federal prosecutors said he secretly listened for about 2 1/2 hours and recorded the March 22 call.
The next day, according to the indictment, he disclosed the contents of the call to an official in the office of Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, who alerted State Police.
Matricardi used the code again March 25, the indictment says.
He also is accused of providing the access code to Claudia Tucker, chief of staff of a Republican legislator, so she could secretly listen to a call. Tucker pleaded guilty in federal court last month to a misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to a year of probation and fined $1,000.
In his motion to dismiss the charges, Matricardi argues that the state Freedom of Information Act "requires that all meetings at which public business is discussed ... be open to the public."
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Maguire declined to comment on the motion Wednesday.
Matricardi resigned because of the scandal and later was hired by the South Carolina Republican Party. He resigned that job after he was indicted in Virginia.
If there is any agreement between the old and new integration rankings, it is that both rate the South as more integrated than the Midwest or Northeast.
The new study by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researchers is more emphatic: 18 of the 20 most integrated metro areas are Southern, and the two exceptions, Baltimore and Washington, are border cities. The study, which analyzes black-white integration by block rather than by the old method of measuring census tracts, gives the top ranking to the Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News metro area. But the reality of Virginia Beach is that a high level of residential integration hasn't yielded political power for black residents. By contrast, nearby Norfolk, with less integration, has achieved a remarkable level of power sharing between the races.
The two cities may be united in the same metropolitan area by the U.S. Census Bureau. But their differing realities show how complex a given metro area can be, and how superficial a portrait is provided by any single statistical rating.
Open discussion in Norfolk
Norfolk, one of Virginia's oldest cities, boasts the largest naval base in the world. Segregation researchers often note that cities where the armed forces have bases have higher levels of integration: The military blends races better than any other organization.
"Naval families live more where other naval families are located," noted Norfolk City Manager Regina V.K. Williams. "That overrides race."
Because military personnel are frequently reassigned, there also is high turnover in neighborhoods, so they are not as locked into traditional patterns that can lead to segregation.
But Norfolk still faced white resistance to school desegregation in the 1960s. Many white families fled, and the percentage of white students in Norfolk's public schools has dropped from 63% in 1970 to 27% today. To combat white flight, Norfolk's political leaders decided to move away from busing, eliminating it for elementary schools in 1986, and for middle schools last year.
Norfolk now is 48% white and 44% black, with 8% other minorities. A court order ended at-large election of City Council members in 1991 and required election by districts, which increased black representation.
Today, the council has four white and three black members. Mayor Paul Fraim is white and City Manager Williams is black. Other African-American officials include the school superintendent, chief of police, head of the city housing authority and city auditor.
Norfolk has some integrated neighborhoods, some that are largely white and well-to-do, and some that are largely black and low-income.
As Williams put it: "Norfolk is, within the region, more the urban core. Virginia Beach looks and feels more suburban."
Race is a frequent subject in Norfolk. The City Council initiated a series of monthly discussions on race-related issues. The long list of issues cut both ways, including racial profiling, intimidation of white children in public schools and minority hiring.
"We have good race relations, despite the fact that we are a Southern city," Fraim said. "We talk about it all the time. We work on it."
Church and civic groups also have gotten involved. Donald Porter, the head of a retail association, helped create a group called Norfolk United Facing Race. A wide range of citizens have gone through the program.
Virginia Beach is Old South
Perhaps because Virginia Beach is only 19.5% African-American, its dialogue about race has been less open. Long a resort area, where blacks were not allowed to rent beach chairs at the oceanfront until the mid-1960s, Virginia Beach also includes rural areas. The city incorporated by merging with Princess Anne County, which was mostly farmland in 1963, and attracted white families fleeing the Norfolk schools.
Some of the new homes were also bought by African-Americans. On average, blacks in Virginia Beach are better educated, have higher incomes and are more likely to own their own home than those in Norfolk.
Virginia Beach also has a remarkable level of residential integration. The segregation index ranks the city as less segregated than most in America. And the new ranking by UWM rates Virginia Beach as the most integrated city in America, with 41% of people living on blocks where at least 20% of the residents are white and 20% are black.
In the 1980s, Virginia Beach was America's fastest-growing city east of the Mississippi. Its newly settled areas were a model of natural integration, according to Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf.
"We all came to the neighborhoods together regardless of our race, religion or nationalities," she recalled.
But that's not the view of others.
"The fact that you have people of different races who live side by side, that's fine and dandy," noted Louisa Strayhorn, an African-American who served on the City Council. "But what does it mean? Integration by itself doesn't tell the story of what the city is like."
The mayor, the city's congressional and General Assembly representatives, and eight of nine City Council members are white. The council has just one minority, of Filipino-American descent.
Although council members serve a particular district, they must get elected at large, meaning each is elected by a majority of people in the entire city, whose voters are mostly (73%) white.
In 1994, Strayhorn managed to get elected, becoming only the second black council member to serve in the last 40 years. But she lasted only one term. Although the council race is non-partisan, Strayhorn was seen as a Democrat and alienated the white Republicans who dominate the city.
"We had taken dead aim on Louisa," Republican Virginia legislator Leo Waldrup told a local newspaper. She was a rising Democrat, he added, "and that's clearly enough for us to lock and load."
For Strayhorn, her 1998 re-election effort is a painful memory.
"I had phone calls saying, 'We're going to make sure that nigger doesn't get elected.' After the election, people would drive by and say, 'See, nigger, we said we'd get you,' " she recalled.
Armed with new census data, local black leaders worked with Norfolk State University political science professor Rudolph Wilson to pressure the City Council to drop the at-large system and redistrict, in order to increase minority representation.
Oberndorf said redistricting was useless. "We tried to find a specifically minority area but we couldn't, because everybody is so well distributed," she said.
Wilson did provide different redistricting plans, including one with two districts that were heavily (40%) minority. But Oberndorf contended that it was accomplished by gerrymandering.
Anita Hodgkiss, a lawyer for the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers Commission for Civil Right Under Law, believes the proposed districts were not unusually shaped.
But the mayor and council rejected any changes proposed by the advocates of increased black representation.
Hodgkiss, who has argued voting rights cases for 17 years, was ready to launch a court battle. But in the 2002 election, Ronald Villanueva won office.
The fact that he was a minority whom many African-Americans supported would make it harder to win the case, Hodgkiss said.
Georgia Allen, president of the local NAACP, thinks the city's business leaders handpicked Villanueva. Still, she remains committed to working for change.
Even Strayhorn, despite her bitter defeat, remains committed to Virginia Beach, where she has now lived for 20 years.
"I came here from Boston," she noted. "This is heaven compared to Boston."
With both Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner and Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. facing major budget shortfalls and legislatures controlled by the opposing party, redistricting isn't at the top of either's agenda. The next round of drawing boundaries for state and federal legislative offices is seven years off, after all, so why think about it now with more pressing business at hand? Yet both men would do their states a great service by thinking ahead and pushing for reform early. Both represent parties -- the Democrats in Virginia, the Republicans in Maryland -- that were the victims of gross gerrymandering during the last round of redistricting. The result is that both states have less competitive legislative districts than they should. Mr. Warner and Mr. Ehrlich both know what it means to have the political decks stacked against them, and both could be excellent advocates for a fairer system.
Redistricting, which follows the census every decade, should be an opportunity to make districts competitive and, thereby, to hold incumbents accountable despite the changing demographics of a state. In most states, however, legislatures seek to protect incumbency and to lock in the advantage of the party in power by drawing as many safe seats for that party as possible. Members accomplish this by crowding voters of the other party into densely packed safe districts -- the result being that districts become either more liberal or more conservative than the population at large, and the center grows weaker. Both Maryland and Virginia last time around experienced ugly redistricting fights: Democrats in Maryland squeezed Rep. Constance A. Morella out of her seat, for example, while Virginia Republicans packed minority voters into noncontiguous districts. Nobody knows in either state which party will be in power to abuse the process next time. But absent reform, it will surely happen again -- and one certain loser will be the public.
There is an alternative to redistricting as a zero-sum partisan game. In Iowa, a nonpolitical bureau takes a first crack at redistricting using only apolitical demographic data. The idea is to produce compact districts and to keep political communities intact. And Iowa districts are significantly more competitive than the national norm. Mr. Warner, at least, seems to know that this is the direction in which to go. According to his spokesman, Kevin Hall, he considered the problem when Democrats were challenging the Republican redistricting plan last year. "At that point, the governor thought out loud, 'My God, there's got to be a better way to do this.' And he thought about Iowa and some other states that have tried to take the partisanship out." Just the other day, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine wrote an op-ed article advocating redistricting reform. But while it is a subject on the administration's mind, Mr. Hall says the issue is not one Mr. Warner will push this year. He should -- as should Mr. Ehrlich. If they act now, while it is still unclear whom reform would help and hurt, good government will have a chance. But once the blinders come off as the next round approaches, reform will become all but impossible.