Editorial: Eligibility standard could undermine redistricting commission

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot

As nature abhors a vacuum, so does democracy detest its many and varied imperfections. The invariable impulse: Let’s fix this.

Reform. The magic word. Say “reform” in the right mix of people and their eyes light up and they reach for their checkbooks.

Which gets us to the subject of redistricting in Virginia, an object of zealous reform which passed handily on election day. It wasn’t even close.

Now what?

Hard to say, because in the days following the Nov. 3 vote — just this past Monday — the General Assembly threw in some “implementation” language that could easily reduce the just-approved redistricting commission to a farce.

But let’s start with the basics, then get to the funny part.

On Nov. 3, Virginia amended its constitution to wrest power for redistricting away from self-interested elected lawmakers and dropped it into the lap of a commission soon to be established and, presumably, functioning in some form or fashion.

The commission, a combination of interested citizens (you can apply to join, but see below) and lawmakers — eight each, for a total of 16 members.

The goal: Maps of legislative districts for Virginia’s congressional representation and for each of the 140 members of General Assembly.

Why redraw these districts at all? Because the population is fluid, always changing, though changing more rapidly in some places than others. The census rolls around every 10 years and following its completion, it’s time for new legislative maps.

It has always been a bear to get done. Always.

Sample the following, as expressed in 1942 by Richmond Del. Walter L. Hopkins, after redistricting legislation emerged from committee. The bill, he said, is one of “the most unfair, unjust and the most discriminatory, inequitable and pernicious piece of legislation ever passed by the General Assembly of Virginia.”

Hopkins’s accusation, sorry to say, has been repeated by lawmakers, nearly word-for-word, every 10 years. Someone always hates what comes out. The redistricting process inspires contempt. It’s inherently contentious.

Why? Because redistricting creates political winners and losers. It is politically consequential, often brutally and unfairly so, and that part will not change one bit.

Virginia is simply going to go about it another way, via a constitutionally sanctioned redistricting commission.

Ah, yes, now we get to it. Because, for the sake and well-being of the commonwealth, you hope the commission’s membership lures in civic talent.

It may be tough. That’s one reasonable interpretation of budget language inserted on Monday, ostensibly designed to shape the commission’s membership.

No tainted souls, if says. If you’ve ever sought or held political office, been employed by a member of the Congress of the United States or of the General Assembly, worked on a campaign — “federal, state or local” — been “employed by any political party” or served as a “registered lobbyist,” you may not sit on this commission.

Do not apply.

It’s also “no” if you are “a parent, spouse, child, sibling, parent-in-law, child-in-law, or sibling-in-law of a person” in the above categories.

Just merely a cohabitating member of a household with such a person? It’s no to you, too.

In other words, a near-total ignorance of democratic processes, combined with a lifetime of democratic disinterest and non-participation, qualifies you to oversee some of the most difficult and confounding political choices known to the republic.

Does this make sense? No, it does not.

It may be aimed at removing politics from the process, but it is so seriously misguided that you wonder what motive lurks behind these restrictions.

An unholy monkey wrench, meant to undo the commission at the starting gate?

A purity test, designed to install citizen lambs in the room with political wolves?

Or is it meant to render the commission so unworkable, so patently ridiculous, that the whole thing locks up and get thrown over the Virginia Supreme Court, as the new constitutional amendment provides?

We’ll see. Virginia’s brave new reform has been given a decidedly inauspicious beginning.

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