A quick update on 9/15/2015: OneVirginia2021 on Monday filed a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court asking that the state’s General Assembly district lines, drawn in 2011, be thrown out on the grounds that the districts are not compact, a requirement of the state constitution.
“Far from having a standard, the legislature effectively ignored the Constitution on this point, and gave us distorted, weirdly shaped districts that break up communities and rig elections by depriving voters of meaningful competition,” says Brian Cannon, the organization’s executive director, in a release.
In August, we caught up with Cannon. Read our Q&A below.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has given the General Assembly until September to redraw its much-contested 2012 voting maps. The court concluded in June that the congressional boundaries unconstitutionally packed black voters into the 3rd Congressional District, which spans from Richmond to Hampton Roads.
The result: fortified Republican strongholds in adjacent districts, and ammunition for critics who say gerrymandering guts party competition and limits voter power.
By mid-July, Gov. Terry McAuliffe was talking about a special session; congressional Republicans, intent upon an appeal, were asking the court for more time and a similar courtroom battle, this one over the state legislative districts, was awaiting a decision expected this month.
What does it all mean? We turned to Brian Cannon, executive director of the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021, for a primer. The group wants an independent commission to take over redistricting, and will file its own legal challenge this month.
Brian Cannon, executive director of redistricting reform group OneVirginia 202. (Photo courtesy: OneVirginia 2021)
RM: Is it possible no one will be happy unless all districts turn “purple”?
Cannon: One of the things foot-draggers on reform say is, “We can’t make every district competitive.” Our organization agrees wholeheartedly. If you drew a line around the city of Richmond and made that one Senate district, it would not be a competitive district. We’re going to elect Democrats all day long, but that’s OK because, as Richmonders, we’re choosing that. Instead, the city is divided three ways right now, so we have three state senators who “represent” Richmond — none of whom live in the city. We’d rather keep communities as intact as possible to keep their voice, whether it’s conservative or liberal or libertarian or purple, instead of being divided up by whoever is in control of redistricting.
RM: The charge that politicians are disenfranchising voters is damning — why is the issue receiving so little attention?
Cannon: This is historically the problem: (Redistricting) is a dirty deed done once a decade. It’s a bad vote that good politicians, for whatever political reason, take that they’re not proud of, but they do it once a decade and hope that we all forget about it. Which is why the court cases are so important — they’re actually forcing the conversation mid-decade.
RM: Can you explain why redistricting went from a political fight to a courtroom battle?
Cannon: The problem is the politicians on both sides of the aisle love to pick their voters. In a lot of states like Virginia [it’s difficult] to eliminate that conflict of interest and structure districts in a way that makes it more fair to the average voter. The court has been the best way in Virginia and other non-ballot initiative states to force some sort of change.
RM: Given the court decision, why is your organization launching a lawsuit of its own?
Cannon: Any opportunity to point out that the current maps are gerrymandered and disenfranchise voters, we’re in favor of. But the suit in the 3rd Congressional District and the corresponding suit in the House districts involve racial gerrymandering and the Voting Rights Act, which is important, but doesn’t address the systemic problem that happens with redistricting.
Our lawsuit addresses the systematic part of redistricting, the lack of compactness. And the lack thereof is a key component not just in districts that are majority-minority, but all over the state. Winning our case would be a huge blow to political gerrymandering in Virginia.
RM: Once these court challenges are settled, where will your group go from there?
Cannon: We have an all-of-the-above approach on fixing this problem. We have grassroots advocacy, we’ve got lobbying, we’re knocking on doors for candidates who support us and telling people their vote does matter, and we have the litigation. In Virginia, we can’t just stick to the courts, we need to get the General Assembly on board, as well. You have to pressure them through the courts; you can pressure them on the grassroots side and also be there in the General Assembly to say, ‘Hey look, here’s a fairer way to reapportion our districts.’