- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2006

The ongoing conflict in Richmond over the state budget and transportation shows how redistricting has muted centrists’ voices and split Republicans along ideological lines, lawmakers and political scientists say.

“A lot of the political middle has seemed to disappear from the legislature,” said Mark Rozell, a politics professor at George Mason University. “Now you have many more representatives that are really cause-oriented, and cause-oriented types are not very good at settling for half a loaf in order to get a deal.”

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a politics professor at the University of Mary Washington, said redistricting has created voting districts so homogeneous that primary elections determine which candidates will become part of the General Assembly.

Homogeneous voting districts force candidates to focus on advocating specific issues such as abortion or tax relief, instead of developing a consensus among disparate voters, he said.

“In most House districts, if you win the primary, you are going to Richmond,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “So instead of worrying about being in the moderate camp, all you really need to do is win your Democratic or Republican primary.

“The most ideological extreme — 10 percent of the electorate — are the ones who make the decisions in these one-sided contests,” he said.

In the longest extended session in Virginia’s history, the Republican-controlled General Assembly has been locked in a contest of wills for 130 days. The Senate wants to increase taxes for transportation projects, but the House wants to tap the state’s billion-dollar surplus for transportation funds.

The impasse marks the legislature’s fourth special session this decade and the fourth time this decade it has failed to produce a budget within its regular 60-day session.

In 2001, Congress approved Virginia’s redistricting plan, which placed many incumbents in single-party voting districts. That year, most of the General Assembly’s elections were decided in the primaries.

Last year, 11 of the House’s 100 races were decided by less than 10 percent of the vote and only three incumbents lost, said Delegate Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, leader of the Democratic caucus.

The U.S. Constitution requires state governments to redraw voting districts every 10 years to reflect population shifts and provide equal representation to voters.

“The Founders envisioned a system where the people would select the representatives, but what happens now is the elected officials that draw the lines are actually picking the people,” Mr. Farnsworth said.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, said the difference in size between Senate districts (about 175,000 people per seat) and House districts (about 70,000 people per seat) has influenced the legislature’s ideological and intraparty feuding more than redistricting.

“[Delegates] have smaller districts, quicker elections, and I think we pay more attention to the feel of the voters,” Mr. Griffith said. “It played out exactly how it was interpreted by the Founders. … The people in the House were supposed to be closer to the people and the Senate is closer to the centralized government.”

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, who lost his Democratic bid for attorney general last year, disagreed.

“Without question, [redistricting] plays a role in the current budget debate because you don’t have people that represent the mainstream or the middle of the road,” said Mr. Deeds, who represents Bath County. “You have government that is almost bipolar. That’s right where we are with transportation.”

The impasse has created some head-scratching situations.

For instance, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester is leading the charge for raising taxes, and House Speaker William J. Howell is at the front holding the line against a tax increase.

Yet both lawmakers are Republicans and hail from Stafford County, and both say they are fulfilling the mandates of their constituents.

“The legislature drew the districts, and now the members — who are the direct beneficiaries of the redistricting — claim to be doing a better job of representing their constituencies,” Mr. Rozell said.

Redistricting has been the bane of minority parties across the country for decades, as majority parties have tended to create districts that protect their incumbents and dominance.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit challenging how Texas Republicans crafted new districts after Democratic lawmakers left the state in an unsuccessful gambit to thwart the change.

Iowa has sought to take the politics out of redistricting by tasking a nonpartisan commission to draft voting districts without using political affiliation, previous election results, the addresses of incumbents or any demographic information other than population. The commission then offers redistricting plans to the legislature.

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