Sunday, March 13, 2011
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Redistricting process must be taken from pols

There were two excellent, yet troubling, examples last week of why Virginia must move toward a nonpartisan redistricting process.

First, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw admitted on a radio show that he would judge the success of the Senate's new map by how well Democrats fare electorally once it's in place. "Our goal is to make the Democratic districts, particularly the marginal ones, a bit better than they are now," he said.

You can't fault Saslaw for being honest. You can fault him for placing partisan interests above the interests of voters.

Second was the laughter that greeted one map drawn up by George Mason University professor Michael McDonald for Gov. Bob McDonnell's bipartisan redistricting commission to consider.

Why laughter? Because the map put U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor out of his current district. "That's just one approach," McDonald said, acknowledging the near certainty that such a map would never be accepted.

But why should it be rejected out of hand? Politicians, however powerful, shouldn't be picking their voters. In a democracy, it's supposed to work the other way around.

Partisan redistricting turns democratic principles on their head.

Efforts to take politicians out of the redistricting process in Virginia have repeatedly failed -- and it's hard to imagine what could convince elected officials to give up that power.

Except maybe a large dose of sunshine.

The computer software for developing redistricting maps is getting more powerful and easier to use. As a result, more people, not just politicians, are able to take a shot at drawing their own maps.

Citizens will be able to look at the maps drawn only by people like McDonald and those by 13 student teams taking part in a contest sponsored by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University and the Public Mapping Project.

They can compare these maps -- drawn with concerns about compactness, representing communities of interest and other sensible factors in mind -- to those drawn and approved by politicians.

Perhaps voters in the New River Valley, for just one example, will wonder why politicians want to split them up and keep them represented by politicians from Roanoke.

And, yes, maybe voters in Cantor's district will ask why his incumbency is more important than putting them in districts that make logical sense.

The maps drawn by professors, lawyers, citizens and students will be based on community boundaries, changes in population, geographic features and other information. Past party voting patterns and incumbents' home addresses won't factor into the lines.

The difference, I hope, will be striking. If enough people see what politicians are doing versus what a nonpolitical process produces, then maybe they'll exert enough public pressure to convince their elected officials to find a better way.

The safe districts created by gerrymandering have led to increased polarization as politicians have more to fear from primary battles against extreme members of their party than they do from general elections.

They leave fewer voters with real choices in those general elections. States with a nonpartisan redistricting process tend to have far more competitive races.

McDonnell's redistricting commission is holding a public hearing at Virginia Western Community College Monday night. I hope lots of people go -- and I hope that when the General Assembly ignores the advice of the commission, as it almost certainly will, all those people get fighting mad about it.

Vehement, bipartisan voter discontent -- loudly and persistently expressed -- is the only tool citizens have that might eventually lead to redistricting reform.

Politicians like Saslaw who blithely assume that the old ways remain acceptable must learn differently.

Such politicians tend to only listen to messages delivered at the ballot box.

Radmacher is the editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.

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