Editorial: Time to slay the Gerrymander
In the coming months, Virginia’s political landscape will be considerably altered as the House of Delegates and Senate of Virginia take up the decennial task of redistricting. Using figures from the 2010 Census, lawmakers will alter the boundary lines of the state’s 40 Senate and 100 House of Delegate districts with the goal of ensuring equal representation.
Now is the time for the General Assembly to correct a mistake it made 10 years earlier when it created the Gerrymander known as Virginia’s 6th Senate District. Residents of Mathews are all too familiar with this voracious political animal that swallowed up the county a decade ago.
While Mathews is fortunate to be represented in the Senate of Virginia by Dr. Ralph Northam, the district’s current configuration is not fair, either to Northam or his Mathews constituents. Another candidate could easily focus his or her energies on the district’s urban population centers and ignore the needs of this isolated rural county.
According to the policy adopted by the General Assembly in 2001, the third criteria for redrawing legislative lines—trailing behind only population equality and compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965—is something called "contiguity and compactness."
"Districts shall be comprised of contiguous territory including adjoining insular territory," it states. "Contiguity by water is sufficient. Districts shall be contiguous and compact in accordance with the Constitution of Virginia."
Somehow the General Assembly used this definition to create the 6th Senate District, one that stretches from the two counties of Virginia’s Eastern Shore and sections of Norfolk and Virginia Beach to Mathews County.
To drive from Franklin City, an unincorporated community near the Maryland border in Accomack County to New Point at the tip of Mathews County, it would take a driver three hours and 38 minutes, according to Google maps. The trip from Mathews Court House to downtown Washington D.C. is about 20 miles shorter.
And yet, amazingly, Franklin City and New Point are considered by state lawmakers to be "contiguous and compact." It may be true that Mathews and Accomack counties are contiguous by water; but following that logic, Mathews is also contiguous to Ireland’s western shore.
Another criterion for creating legislative districts is something called "communities of interest." This refers to communities that have strong economic, social and cultural ties. While Mathews may share some similarities with Accomack and Northampton counties, what "communities of interest" exist between residents of Mathews and those of downtown Norfolk and Virginia Beach?
Virginia is on a tight deadline to redraw these lines. Detailed Census data will begin to make their way to the General Assembly next month, after which both houses must meet in special sessions to redraw the map. The Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House will have to sign off on the same plan, as will Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Then the federal Justice Department must give its stamp of approval—all in time for this year’s Nov. 8 general election.
The General Assembly must act now. Mathews has to be reunited with its Middle Peninsula neighbors; we cannot wait another 10 years for this mistake to be resolved.