RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) –Are Virginia lawmakers guilty of maneuvering and manipulating black voters for political advantage?
Both elected state officials and residents have accused the General Assembly of doing just that, following Virginia’s 2012 redistricting process.
“Actually being taken out of one district and put into another district, without having any say-so at all, it’s more like a dictatorship than being represented fairly,” said Risegun Olomidun, a performing artist in Petersburg who grew up in nearby Ettrick.
Petersburg finds itself at ground zero of a debate over redistricting, and what role-if any- race played in the drawing of new congressional lines.
Every 10 years, the Virginia assembly is required by law to create new maps for state and federal elections. The maps are intended to reflect population changes and protect minority representation in government.
But this year, some people are crying foul after Petersburg, a city of 32,000 that’s roughly 80 percent black, was carved out of the 4th congressional district, currently represented by Republican Congressman Randy Forbes, and redrawn into the nearby 3rd, long represented by Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott.
Those changes will take effect following the 2012 elections.
“The way you draw the lines can affect who gets elected,” noted Scott recently, “and any redistricting has political implications.”
The notion that state lawmakers would use the redistricting process to ‘gerrymander,’ or rig districts to get a certain party elected, is nothing new. That type of abuse of power, according to political experts, has been going on in statehouses across the country for years.
What has stirred emotions here in Virginia- a state with a history of racial injustice and disenfranchisement of black voters- is that minority voters in 2012 are being moved around for political gain.
“The 3rd district was clearly sufficient for the minority community to elect a candidate of its choice,” said Scott.
And [the General Assembly] added to it, made it more Democratic.
That doesn’t add anything to the 3rd district that wasn’t already there, but it detracts from possibilities [for minority influence] in other surrounding districts.
Under recent interpretations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Virginia is compelled to create and maintain a ‘majority-minority district,’ or a district with more than 50 percent black voters, if it can be drawn.
That district is Virginia’s 3rd congressional district, created in 1991, a year before Scott was elected to office.
Yet by moving Petersburg into the 3rd, some Democratic lawmakers are accusing the GOP-led legislature of concentrating black voters in that one district, reducing the group’s influence elsewhere.
“That district needed to gain [minority] population to comply with the Voting Rights Act, period,” said Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in a recent interview with CBS 6. “So this wasn’t a gratuitous move of people.”
Cuccinelli, a Republican, roundly dismissed the accusation that his colleagues in the General Assembly concentrated black voters in the 3rd for political gain.
“Every 10 years, people move around,” Cuccinelli continued. “Relative to the other districts, the 3rd needed to pick up [minority voters] to stay compliant with the law.”
Delegate Rob Bell (R – Charlottesville) sponsored the congressional redistricting bill.
He explained to CBS 6 that there were many factors involved in the process, such as protecting communities of interest, gaining enough support in the House and Senate for passage, and perhaps most importantly, complying with the Voting Rights Act.
“We thought it complied with the Voting Rights Act, the Attorney General’s people said they thought it did, and the Obama Justice Department reviewed it at length- and they thought it did,” said Bell.
Southern states with a checkered past on civil rights issues- such as Virginia- are required by the law to have their new voting lines approved by the Justice Department.
Despite concerns raised by some lawmakers of ‘minority packing,’ Virginia’s congressional lines cleared the Justice Department in March.
“It’s hard to imagine that somehow the Obama Administration, and the Obama Justice Department, just turned the other cheek, or turned the other way, you might say, to an instance of minority packing,” said Dr. Bob Holsworth, a political expert with extensive experience in redistricting.
Holsworth said the black voting age population in the revamped 3rd- about 56 percent of voters- was elevated, but not high enough to validate accusations of minority packing.
However, Holsworth also added that Virginia lawmakers are undeniably using the redistricting process for political reasons, to strengthen their grip on power.
“Some people now say that instead of voters choosing their politicians in many ways, we have our leaders choosing their voters,” exclaimed Holsworth.
He says the new maps benefit the Republicans, who control the state legislature.
In our interview with Delegate Bell, we asked him if he felt the new lines are fair.
Bell reiterated that there “were many issues that we had to worry about,” and despite claims of unfairness, and racial exploitation, the Justice Department approved the lines.
He also added that using Congressman Scott’s electability as a good indicator of fairness (Scott has won his district with at least 69% of the vote for 20 years), is not a reliable measuring stick.
“This is not Congressman Scott’s district, this is a district for whoever will be elected for the next decade,” said Bell. “So you’re not trying to design it for a particular person- the issue from a legal standpoint would be the district itself and the demographics and the numbers, and whether it can support a candidate of choice in the future.”
State Senator Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, proposed an alternate map that would have shifted a lot of minority voters out of the 3rd district to create potentially two districts capable of electing black congressmen.
Locke called the adopted version “overpacked”, and accused Republican lawmakers of rendering many minority votes “meaningless” in future elections.
“It’s a power play,” said Locke, “and certainly if a group is in power they want to maintain that power, and maintain that power in a way that it stays that way for years.”
Dr. Holsworth, who was selected by Governor Bob McDonnell to chair an independent commission on redistricting before the 2012 session began, agrees with Locke on lawmakers’ motivation for the new maps.
Holsworth’s commission created state and federal maps focused on population and communities of interest, he said, and not politics. But the findings were non-binding, and the General Assembly rejected them.
“The maps were widely approved by a lot of the citizens who looked at them, and the editorial pages across Virginia, by and large, thought that the maps made a lot of sense,” said Holsworth.
“But one of the things we know about politicians and political leaders,” concluded Holsworth, “is that they pretty jealously cling to the powers that they do have, and they don’t give them up willingly.”