Politics and Public Opinion

Redistricting Virginia

Today, AEI’s Norm Ornstein and Brookings’ Tom Mann will be in Richmond to announce the winners of the Virginia Redistricting Competition. As the contest’s judges, Ornstein and Mann studied district plans submitted by 15 teams of college students from 12 colleges and universities throughout the state of Virginia. Student teams drew new district maps for the House of Representatives, the state senate, and the state house of delegates, with the maps emphasizing either competitiveness or adherence to the rules set by the Governor Bob McDonnell’s Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting.

Just before Ornstein and Mann sat down to judge the plans last week, there came the news that Virginia’s members of Congress had agreed, on a bipartisan basis, to accept a redistricting plan that would strengthen the electoral prospects of incumbents. Given that Republicans now hold nine of Virginia’s House seats, compared to three for the Democrats, this plan would help Republicans more than it does Democrats, and since Virginia has shown itself to be a “purple state” in recent elections, such a plan would perpetuate the current inflated Republican influence in the state relative to the ideological identification of Virginia’s voters statewide. The only district in which the Democrat incumbent was not already safe was the 11th District in Northern Virginia, where Gerry Connolly eked out a victory last November by less than a thousand votes. In a Washington Post op-ed this past weekend, Ornstein and Mann argued that if this plan were to be put into effect when the Virginia General Assembly meets in a couple of weeks, the real losers would be the voters of Virginia, who would be “denied competitive elections in which the outcomes reflect their collective preferences.”

But for Ornstein and Mann, one of the major takeaways from the Virginia Redistricting Competition is that it doesn’t have to be that way. They write in their op-ed that “the best student plans show that it is possible to create more legitimate and responsive districts—and that with the right tools, citizens anywhere can create better plans to choose their representatives than the representatives do to protect their own careers.” Using the District Builder open-source redistricting software developed by Harvard’s Micah Altman and George Mason’s Michael McDonald, student teams were able to create district maps that respected district compactness, contiguity, existing communities of interest, and (in the competition category) representational fairness and electoral competition (all of the maps entered in the competition can be viewed here). Increasing the safety of incumbents was not the central goal of the competition, and as a result, the students offered plans that reflected the concerns of voters more than those of officeholders.

Perhaps Virginia’s members of Congress think they have approved the best redistricting plan—to ensure their own re-elections. But as the entries in the Virginia Redistricting Competition show, there exists the potential to create plans that are better for Virginia voters and more responsive to their policy wishes.

For more information about the competition, please visit www.varedistrictingcompetition.org.

Image by Will Weaver.

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