By Ellen Salsbury & Sara Fitzgerald
The recent town hall with the city’s General Assembly representatives provided an example of participatory democracy at its finest: A good turnout of citizens and city officials, raising their concerns in civil language and asking thoughtful questions at the beginning of the annual legislative session.
Nevertheless, the session also highlighted one of the biggest threats that our democracy now faces: the long-term negative effects of partisan redistricting. This so-called gerrymandering amounts to letting politicians choose their voters instead of enabling voters to choose the politicians who will represent them.
Sen. Dick Saslaw has been around the General Assembly long enough – 40 years, 36 of them in the Senate – to understand the challenges faced by those seeking to reform the system. Saslaw addressed the issue of redistricting reform in his opening remarks at the town hall, and noted in a lighter moment that “good” redistricting occurs when your own party draws the maps and “bad” redistricting occurs when the other party does it.
In 2011, when Republicans controlled the House of Delegates and Democrats controlled the Senate, members of both parties missed a rare opportunity to promote a bipartisan proposal that would turn the process over to an independent commission, as many states have already done. Instead, the Republican-controlled House developed the plan for the House and the Democratic-controlled Senate developed the plan for the Senate. At the town hall, Sen. Saslaw defended his party’s handiwork, correctly observing that the Senate’s redistricting map led to a chamber whose partisan split is much closer to that of the whole state than is the case in the House of Delegates. But the League was disappointed when Saslaw found fault with one of the independently developed maps on the basis that it pitted too many incumbents against one another.
Unfortunately, the redistricting process in Virginia now amounts to an incumbent protection plan. In the General Assembly elections last November, most voters had no choice of who would represent them. In only 49 of the state’s 140 legislative races did both major parties even bother to field a candidate. Even when a Republican and a Democratic faced off, the margin of victory averaged nearly 20 percentage points. In only six of the 100 races for House seats was the margin of victory fewer than 10 percentage points. In the case of the City of Falls Church, State Rep. Marcus Simon faced no opposition; Sen. Saslaw defeated his sole opponent, a member of the Independent Green Party, by a margin of 74 to 24 percent. It is no wonder that statewide voter turnout last November dropped to the lowest level since Virginia began keeping records in 1970.
The protection of incumbents, and the creation of very safe districts, leads to another negative result. The League of Women Voters of Falls Church was distressed that of the 15 candidates who faced opponents on last November’s ballot in the city, Saslaw was the only one who did not respond to the League’s request for biographical information and answers to four issue-related questions. At the town hall, Saslaw said that he had adopted this posture toward all questionnaires, having felt burned in the past when he had to provide “yes” or “no” answers on complex issues. Further, he contended that after his many years in public office, the voters know where he stands on the issues. For the record, the League asked Saslaw and his opponent: “What changes in Virginia’s method of drawing election district lines (redistricting) would you support to increase the number of contested elections and increase voter turnout?” Because Saslaw did not represent the City of Falls Church at the time of the 2011 redistricting, many city residents would have little knowledge of his positions on that issue.
Saslaw defended his failure to respond to the League by citing his quarterly newsletters to constituents (communicating on issues of Saslaw’s choice), and pointed to other legislative colleagues who do not respond to questionnaires. He asserted that members of the Senate only support redistricting reform bills because they know these bills ultimately will be defeated in the House, and said he had not yet read SB 59, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Jill Vogel and Democratic Sen. Janet Howell, designed to promote a fair and non-partisan approach to redistricting, and eliminate consideration of the addresses of incumbents.
Now that the Falls Church City Council has adopted redistricting reform as one of its priorities for the current legislative session, it is time for Sen. Saslaw to not only show real leadership on this issue but also to communicate with his constituents as if his reelection depended on it.
Ellen Salsbury is president of the League of Women Voters of Falls Church. Sara Fitzgerald is a member of the redistricting task force of the League of Women Voters of the United States.