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Rep. Scott: Let Independent Panel Draw Districts

February 24, 2015

By Ali Mislowsky
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, says the General Assembly should take some of the politics out of redistricting by having an independent commission redraw political boundaries.

When legislators themselves do redistricting, they have a personal interest in protecting their political future and their party, Scottsaid. That’s why he’d prefer that redistricting be done by a bipartisan or nonpartisan panel.

“It would still be partisan, but the difference is that it’s not personal,” Scott said in an interview after speaking to political science students and faculty Monday at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“When you’re doing it in the General Assembly and the people affected are sitting right across the aisle from you or right in front of you … interpersonal relationships start getting into it.”

The boundaries of Virginia’s only African American majority district were declared unconstitutional last year by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“The unconstitutionality was, they found that race was a prominent factor in drawing the lines,” said Scott, who has represented the 3rd District since 1993. He added that the district was challenged for violating Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, “which says you can’t dilute minority representation.”

Scott’s district has been challenged for doing just that. Its shape resembles a Rorschach inkblot: The 3rd District includes Portsmouth and Petersburg and parts of Newport News, Norfolk and Richmond – all areas with large African American populations. As a result, black voters have a smaller presence and less influence in surrounding districts.

The General Assembly has been tasked with drawing new district lines. Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford, plans to wait until the Supreme Court makes a decision in the case. Scott said that could take a while.

“The Supreme Court has not taken action on it because there is a similar case in Alabama,” Scott said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We just have to wait for that Alabama case.”

During this legislative session, more than a dozen measures were introduced to address the problem of “gerrymandering,” a term to describe the manipulation of district boundaries to suit partisan political interests.

Several sought to establish an independent redistricting commission, either by law or through a constitutional amendment. Other bills tried to prohibit the General Assembly from using political data or election results in redistricting.

The Senate passed three redistricting reform measures – but every attempt died in the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

Partisanship may always be a part of the redistricting process. But an independent panel may offer a better shot than legislators at producing a fairer outcome, Scott said.

“Anybody that would be interested in it usually has some political interest,” he said. “It’s just hard to get politics out of it, but you can get the personalities out of it. And you can get kind of objective standards, which makes it a little more likely that you’re going to get a result that better reflects the community.”

The U.S. District Court has given the General Assembly until Sept. 1 to redraw the 3rd District – unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules earlier. If the Supreme Court rules before then, the deadline will be 60 days after its decision.

“It is wasteful for the General Assembly to devise a redistricting plan without the views and instructions of the Supreme Court,” the District Court said.