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Reader commentary: GOP-drawn Senate redistricting map robs voters of meaningful choice

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Andy Schmookler


By Andy Schmookler

By now, I hope, most Virginians are aware of the outrageous sneak attack launched by the Republicans in the Virginia State Senate.

The Virginia State Senate is evenly divided: 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. On Monday, which was both Inauguration Day and a national holiday, one of the Democrats went to Washington to attend the presidential inauguration.

The Republicans in the Virginia Senate seized that fleeting opportunity to pass something that was significant, that serves a purely partisan purpose, and that was quite likely illegal.

They passed a brand new redistricting map for the election of our state senators -- passed it without warning, without discussion, without input from the citizens whose political rights are surely affected. And without precedent in Virginia's history.

The main effect of this Republican-drawn map would be to increase the number of Republicans and decrease the number of Democrats in the state Senate. Indeed, it could create essentially a permanent majority for the Republicans, even if a majority of Virginians want it otherwise.

It was, in other words, a purely partisan move that robs Virginia voters of meaningful choice. Like all gerrymandering, it is a matter of politicians gaining power for themselves at the expense not only of their competition, but also of the people. But unlike most gerrymandering, this instance, as the Washington Post editorialized, was "executed in the style of a putsch, arising from a conspiracy."

Every single Republican senator supported this. This reflects badly on every one of those senators. (That same Washington Post editorial described this move as "a new low for hyper-partisanship, dirty tricks and the unaccountable arrogance of power.")

But it reflects especially badly on our own senator from this area, Mark Obenshain.

Why him especially? Because Obenshain is running now to be our state's chief law enforcement officer, the attorney general of the commonwealth of Virginia, and because this move shows a lack of respect for the rule of law.

Virginia's constitution states, "The General Assembly shall reapportion the Commonwealth into electoral districts in accordance with this section in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter" (Article II, Section 6).

Just last year, a Richmond Circuit Court judge reaffirmed this point that any substantial redistricting needs to be done in the year after the census - "2011 and every ten years thereafter" - and not whenever some political party wants to seize the opportunity to grab more power.

With this legal issue having been clarified so publicly less than a year ago, it raises the question of how suitable for Virginia's attorney generalship any politician can be who has shown himself willing to sacrifice the state constitution for partisan advantage.

Shame on Mr. Obenshain!

Now these same Republicans in the Virginia state Senate have announced their intention to change the way Virginia casts its votes in presidential elections. Instead of the long-established winner-take-all rule, they would have the electors vote according to the tally in each of the state's congressional districts.

Because these districts were gerrymandered to the advantage of Republicans last year - the Republicans won eight of the 11 congressional seats last November, even though as many Virginians voted for Democrats as for Republicans - this new method would have given Mitt Romney more of Virginia's electoral votes than President Obama, even though Obama won Virginia's popular vote by a comfortable margin.

Even Virginians who would have liked that outcome should be appalled. For the issue here for patriotic Americans should not be whom will the results benefit but what kind of country are we?

The issue should be will there be honor in how we conduct our politics, or is gaining power the only thing? It should be do we believe in the fundamental principles of our democracy - equality of citizens and majority rule - or do we allow them to be trampled in order to get an advantage for our side?
Let us make sure this conduct is not rewarded.

Andy Schmookler, recently the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia's 6th District, is the author of various books, including "The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution." He lives in Shenandoah County.


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