Redistricting:  A Response to Delegate Brian Moran

November 27, 2003

SUMMARY:  Creating more competitive legislative districts by redistricting in such a way as to attempt to obtain balance between the two political parties sounds like a great idea. In fact, the power of incumbency usually trumps any ostensible balance. And if we want our districts to be geographically contiguous, balancing will be very difficult to pull off.

Delegate Brian Moran suggests ("Virginia's No-Choice Elections," Sunday, November 23, 2003 in the Outlook Section of the Washington Post) that Virginians would be better off if our legislative districts were more competitive and if more or all races were contested. His solution is a "non-partisan" redistricting which in theory would produce districts where both parties would have enough chance of winning that they would both field candidates. Is his solution likely to produce the desired results?

Can we actually balance districts? To answer this, we must first decide if it is important that a legislative district reflect the contiguous communities in which we live. If not, then Delegate Moran could well be given a district that is a thin snake stretching from Alexandria through Springfield and out to Loudoun County. Given that Loudoun, Springfield, and Alexandria have quite different interests, it might be somewhat difficult for him to represent this district in the House of Delegates. Perhaps in an age of growing technology, that concern isn't important. In theory we could pick 20,000 voters at random throughout the Commonwealth and call them a district - a virtual district as it were. Since most communications between a delegate and his or her constituents are done by mail, e-mail, and telephone, physical separation should be no handicap, and we'd have the ultimate in competitive districts. Local issues would be overwhelmed by statewide matters. I doubt this is a direction in which any of us would like to head, however, Delegate Moran included.

Do balanced districts make for competitive races? What Delegate Moran surely knows, but isn't telling, is that the power of incumbency trumps an even mix of partisan voters. An incumbent has name recognition, money, influence, and colleagues in the legislature who are disposed to be helpful in building his or her record. Even in "competitive" districts, incumbents win almost all the time. Before we are so fast to congratulate the people of Iowa for their redistricting, it would be interesting to see what percentage of incumbents are being re-elected five and ten years from now. The only reliable way to solve this problem is to impose term limits so as to create an incumbent-free race every few years. I suspect this is another path upon which Delegate Moran would decline to embark.

And do parties actually field candidates in balanced districts? A telling point here is that in open races without an incumbent, both parties do field candidates, even in the less competitive districts. They fail to field candidates when the incumbent running for re-election is too strong to be beaten, choosing to put their money and volunteers into races in which they do have a chance. That's a rational approach. Throwing a neophyte candidate with no money against an experienced incumbent with lots of money only makes sense if the neophyte is willing to repeat the experience in the next election (and maybe the one after that); the first race is run merely for the experience.

Finally, does the lack of a candidate from each party prevent a "healthy debate of issues" as Delegate Moran suggests? Setting aside the matter of how many voters care about or pay attention to such a debate, the problem exists only when that one race is taken in isolation. Given all the races in Northern Virginia this year, it's hard to imagine that any voter who cared even a little wouldn't have been exposed to the debate, such as it was. And independent candidates are so often without funds and ignored by the party candidates that they rarely contribute to the debate, regardless of the value of what they have to say.

In short, Delegate Moran shouldn't be surprised when his efforts die in committee. To some, they appear to be merely partisan attempts to gain advantage. To others, they offer little chance of really solving anything. Absent some compelling evidence that's not now on the table, it's time to move on.

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