No more suspense in elections

Published 7:22 am Saturday, January 26, 2013

Gerrymandering is as old as representative democracy, and it isn’t going anywhere as long as sitting lawmakers are the ones drawing the electoral maps.

Three things have made gerrymandering more problematic in recent years:

1. Its practitioners, once driven to protect incumbents, regardless of party affiliation, now are driven to preserve the power of political parties.

2. Pressure from the federal government has caused inordinate emphasis on drawing lines that favor African-American candidates.

3. Technology has made the process more precise, virtually assuring the outcomes of future elections.

It should be noted that both parties play the game. Senate Republicans in Virginia are the latest to take gerrymandering to new extremes with their surprise move this week to redraw state Senate lines just a couple of years after a new map was adopted to reflect 2010 Census numbers.

Democrats say that’s unconstitutional, that lines can be redrawn only once every 10 years. Senate Republicans obviously think otherwise, setting up a battle in the courts should the bill pass the House of Delegates and be signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Republican supporters, with a wink to the GOP faithful, say they were motivated by a suddenly urgent need to create a sixth “majority-minority” Senate district in order to stay in the good graces of federal regulators (even though those same regulators just approved the current Senate map). Conveniently, the new district, which would take in a big chunk of Franklin and Southampton County, would improve the electoral odds of Republicans in the 34 “majority–majority” districts, thus assuring GOP control of the state Senate for many years to come.

It is modern-day gerrymandering at its best, no matter consequences such as this: Residents of Boykins, Branchville, Capron, Drewryville, Newsoms and the “south side” of Franklin would share a state senator with people in Danville, three hours to the west.

The irony of a Democratic administration in Washington – specifically the U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces the Voting Rights Act – helping preside over a process that ensures Republican control of the state Senate shouldn’t be lost on Democrats who are complaining about the latest GOP power play.

The 50-year effort, perhaps noble at its origin, to guarantee the election of black lawmakers at all levels of government has helped zap our democracy of competitive elections. Most Americans – especially those of us in Western Tidewater – now go to the polls and cast our ballots for city council, board of supervisors, General Assembly and congressional candidates in elections whose outcomes were pre-ordained.

Yet our leaders wonder why voter turnout is low in non-presidential elections and why more good candidates don’t run for office.

The system is rigged, evidenced again by the action this week in Richmond.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is