- - Saturday, October 31, 2020

One of the most important reasons to be careful in voting this year is because those who are elected to statehouses or state legislatures will control, or at least initiate, the reapportionment process in which the contours of congressional districts are determined.

These redistricting efforts are always subject to controversy, mostly because as a result of the decennial census, some states lose congressional seats and some states gain congressional seats. That tends to make members of Congress nervous.

Based on this year’s census, 10 states — Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia — probably will lose one seat. Other states — Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon — are likely to pick up one seat. Florida probably will pick up two seats. Texas probably will pick up three.

There is always a lot of very certain talk about how much one party or the other will gain from redistricting. The reality is a little murkier.

In most instances, the decision as to where to add or subtract a congressional district is complicated by differences in the political power of the members of a state’s congressional delegation. Unpopular or weaker members tend to be put on the chopping block.

In some places, decisions about redrawing districts is colored by partisan differences between the member of Congress and the state legislators. In some instances, redistricting is used to settle old scores. 

The federal government gets involved through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provides for oversight and, in some cases, approval of redistricting plans by the Department of Justice. All state redistricting plans are ultimately reviewable – and typically reviewed — by the federal courts.

In short, the process starts in the states and many times winds up in federal courts. Because the process involves so many people and institutions, for the most part — and despite the dire projections from all sides — redistricting rarely results in long-term gains for one side or another.

Unless the state in question adopts an “independent” commission to redraw congressional districts, which a handful of states have done.

This year, unfortunately, there are ballot initiatives in several states — including the cradle of the nation, and the birthplace of presidents (Virginia) — to put independent commissions in charge of redistricting.

Creating and empowering a commission — which is fundamentally anti-democratic and eviscerates popular sovereignty — to make essential decisions about the structure and foundation of our democracy is a bad idea.

In Virginia, the proposed process is especially disturbing. The “independent” commission would consist of eight legislators, four from each party, and eight citizens, chosen by a panel of retired (retreaded?) circuit court judges who are themselves selected by party leaders.

It would be better for the commonwealth and for the republic it founded to insist that those actually elected to execute the will of the people  — also known as “legislators” — do their job.

By passing the buck to a commission, half of whom are unelected, Ballot Question #1 in Virginia joins what is becoming a troubling trend — a reliance on non-representative bodies and mechanisms to make governmental and societal decisions. Proxy voting in Congress. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission. The Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

Finally, there is some evidence that such commissions are not even good at what they are supposed to do — reduce the influence of politics in redistricting decisions. In California, when the independent commission was created, there were 19 Republicans in a congressional delegation of 53. Ten years on, there are now just seven, although about 28% of the voters in California vote for Republicans in House elections. That percentage suggests that there should be between 12 and 14 Republicans, assuming the districts are drawn fairly by the “independent” commission.

Fellow Virginians, I encourage you as strongly as I can to retain representative government for as long as you can, and vote against Ballot Question #1.

• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.

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