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How gerrymandering impacts Virginia elections

RICHMOND, Va. — As Virginia approaches Election Day on Nov. 7 to decide the next governor and the future of the House of Delegates, gerrymandering will have another big impact. The manipulation of district lines to favor one party or candidate over another determines the fate of Virginia elections more than most voters may realize.

Bill Oglesby, an associate professor at VCU and producer of the documentary “GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy On Its Head,” said that it is too easy to manipulate district lines to reflect one party’s interests.

“With the algorithms we have today, we can know within certain blocks which blocks are more conservative and which are more liberal. We can even get it down to specific houses,” said Oglesby.

His public television documentary, which explores the history of gerrymandering and its danger to Virginia politics, will be used as a source in the official record of the U.S. Supreme Court case that could decide the future of gerrymandering in the U.S.

The Supreme Court took up a case of partisan gerrymandering at the beginning of the month. The case could ultimately decide the way the state legislature will determine district lines. As it stands, there is little indication which way the decision will go.

“It's exciting to think that one or more justices might even be prompted to watch the documentary,” said Oglesby, who collaborated with the nonpartisan organization OneVirginia2021.

“From the gridlock in Washington to the polarization in our politics, everybody is looking for answers about what’s going on. It doesn’t take you too long to get to gerrymandering,” Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, said.

“Our mission is to end gerrymandering in Virginia, to provide transparency in the process of redistricting and establish the concept that communities should be picking their political leaders, not vice-versa,” said Cannon.

According to Cannon, the gubernatorial race will play a crucial role in Virginia gerrymandering.

The next governor will have the veto over the gerrymandered district maps.

In fact, it might be one of the first things on the new governor’s desk, if a case in Virginia goes forward.

The Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections case deals with racial gerrymandering, accusing the Republican majority legislature of packing districts with African-American voters to dilute their voting strength in surrounding districts.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a partial victory to Virginia voters in this case. Though the Supreme Court did not take a firm position, it said that the lower court had not applied the right standards when it concluded that the legislature’s work was constitutional.

This decision gives Virginia Democrats the chance to continue to challenge the legislature. Depending on the outcome, this could result in a court order to redraw more than 30 districts in Virginia this winter.

Montigue Magruder, a Green Party candidate for the House of Delegates in the 69th district, said he believed Virginia districts have been racially gerrymandered.

“Every district that centralizes the city are directly called into question by the court case,” said Magruder. “Depending on the ruling, it will definitely affect how those three districts are redrawn.”

As it stands, district lines are drawn by the General Assembly, allowing a state’s representatives to create district lines with the right voter makeup to keep them in power.

“Gerrymandering protects incumbent politicians,” said Cannon, describing the advantage provided to representatives in the current redistricting system.

The 72nd district is such an example of gerrymandering with its unnatural, according to Cannon.

“They adhere to no reasonable natural or man-made lines, they often carve up neighborhoods and draw out individuals who might be thinking about running for office,” said Cannon of the current redistricting process. In this system “your vote and your voice is just a formality that happens in November.”

But gerrymandering is nothing new to Virginia politics. It goes all the way back to the founding fathers and began as early as the 1700s when Patrick Henry tried to gerrymander James Madison from his congressional district to give himself the advantage.

“It didn’t work,” said Cannon, “It wasn’t that precise.”

Now computers and sophisticated algorithms are able to create an entirely new narrative. With increases in technology, representatives can create district lines with incredible accuracy.

Magruder said that though gerrymandering was a serious concern in the upcoming election, the real problem is awareness.

“A lot of people in my district aren’t even aware of the House of Delegates, they don’t even know about the General Assembly,” said Magruder. “[Gerrymandering is] just another battle that has to be fought.”

But some constituents don’t even know that it exists.

Business owners Lou Stevens and Amanda Perry, who run Lou Stevens Glam Squad in Richmond, were in shock to find out that a district line cuts straight in between their homes, which are within minutes of one another.

“It doesn’t make much sense to me, why does someone get to just decide those things with no system in place to make sure it’s fair,” said Stevens.

Cannon, along with Oglesby, said that an independent, nonpartisan commission is the answer.

“We right now have a system where the most biased people in the whole universe are who we give that job to,” said Cannon. “By giving it to a commission you actually inject some transparency into the process.

By Sarah Honosky and Alexis Kennedy (Special to WTVR.com)

EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com has partnered with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students from the project reported the following story.