Following the census, the Constitution requires states to even out the population in legislative districts that have become lopsided over the past decade due to demographic changes. Although majority parties typically take advantage of redistricting to give themselves an electoral advantage, its primary purpose is to ensure that voters are equally represented in both Congress and in the nation's statehouses.
Last year, Democrats in Annapolis brought public ridicule upon Maryland by creating some of the most ridiculous-looking gerrymandered congressional districts in the nation. But this week, it was Republicans in the Virginia Senate who embarrassed themselves. Taking advantage of the temporary absence of 79-year-old civil rights lawyer Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond -- he was in Washington attending President Obama's second inauguration -- they rammed through a new redistricting measure designed to make it easier for them to control the evenly divided chamber after its next election is held in 2015.
Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, sponsored the measure, which was suddenly rushed to the floor and passed along party lines to the surprise of nearly everyone in the state, including Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Watkins defended his power play, noting that it reduces the number of split jurisdictions and creates a sixth black majority state Senate district in Southside Virginia -- the first since 1991.
Admirable objectives, perhaps, but why then the underhanded legislative process? As it happens, the new map also targets seven Democratic senators, including 2009 gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, and Northern Virginia Sens. Dave Marsden, D-Burke, George Barker, D-Alexandria, Charles Colgan, D-Manassas, and Mark Herring, D-Leesburg.
The House bill sat around for nearly two weeks before bypassing the Privileges and Elections Committee and being sent directly to the Senate floor in Marsh's absence, where it squeaked by in a 20-19 partly-line vote. Democratic leader Sen. Don McEachin, D-Richmond, condemned the surprise vote, correctly calling it "secretive and underhanded."
The measure now goes back to the House of Delegates, and then on to the governor for his signature. Given that it threatens to undermine the governor's entire legislative agenda, McDonnell and House Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford, should think twice about giving their stamp of approval to this cynical ploy for blatant partisan advantage. Besides further poisoning the political atmosphere in Richmond, it sets one horrible precedent for future redistricting bills, and another for Inauguration Day SEmD a symbolic day when most Americans expect their elected officials to observe at least a brief cease-fire.