Legislators go back to the drawing board for redistricting

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April 22, 2011

2:16 AM

A recent amendment to the City of Williamsburg election code has changed the polling place for students at the College of William and Mary. The modification comes in the midst of a contested state-wide redistricting process.

Ordinance 11- 07, signed by Williamsburg Mayor and College economics professor Clyde Haulman April 14, changed the boundaries of the Berkeley and Stryker voting precincts to accommodate a state code preventing a single voting district from containing more than 5,000 registered voters. The change moves students at the College from the Stryker to the Berkeley precinct, whose polling location is the Williamsburg United Methodist Church at 500 Jamestown Rd.

“Rather than having to walk three or four blocks, they can just walk across the street to the Methodist Church,” Haulman said. “It’s just a matter of convenience for voters.”

Students formerly voted at the Williamsburg Community Building at 401 North Boundary St.

While the effects of the local boundary change are minimal, the state-wide redistricting results will have a significant impact on voters at the College and across Virginia.

District lines are redrawn in each state every 10 years based on the results of the federal census. In Virginia, the General Assembly is currently working to realign the borders of the commonwealth’s 40 state Senate seats and 100 delegate districts.

With Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans dominating the House of Delegates, the process has been greatly disputed. To expedite the proceedings, the chambers submitted a plan to Gov. Bob McDonnell last week in which each chamber was responsible for redrawing its own boundary lines.
Citing concerns about potential violations of federal law and the large number of cities it split, McDonnell vetoed the plan April 15.

“What is happening in the legislature is kind of predictable,” Rebecca Hulse, Election Law Program coordinator for the Marshall – Wythe School of Law, said. “I don’t think anyone is surprised this has devolved into a political mess.”

Hulse served as the faculty advisor for the law school team that took first place in the Governor’s Commission Congressional district map category of the Virginia Redistricting Competition in March. A team of undergraduate College students also took first place in the Governor’s Commission state Senate map category.

Both teams had the opportunity to present their proposals to the General Assembly for consideration, and state Sen. John Miller (D-Newport News) introduced the undergraduate team’s plan to the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee as SB5002.

However, students did not feel that most legislators seriously considered their proposals.

“They obviously had their own agenda when they were moving forward with it,” undergraduate team member Alex Bramsen ’12 said. “We were grateful to Senator Miller, but realistically we knew that we were not going to receive the level of serious consideration that would be required.”

McDonnell’s Executive Order 31 created an Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting to devise a plan composed of districts of “contiguous and compact territory” that “respect the boundary lines of existing political subdivisions” and divide as few cities “as practicable.” While the College’s student teams used these guidelines to create their proposals, team members did not feel the General Assembly’s plans adhered to them.

“Politicians in the state are more concerned about what’s in their backyards than what’s good for the Commonwealth,” Hulse said.

According to Bramsen, the General Assembly’s plan seemed to reflect legislators’ personal reelection ambitions.

“The map that [state Sen. Janet] Howell (D-Fairfax) put forward was fairly obviously to protect Democratic seats, and in some cases even promote them,” Bramsen said. “It split a lot of boundaries in populated areas. It did that in order to protect Democratic incumbencies.”

Williamsburg was one of the cities split by the vetoed proposal. The rejected plan divided the newly augmented Berkeley voting precinct, of which the College is now a part, between the first and third state Senate districts.

Because of this proposed split, Haulman sent a letter to McDonnell urging him to veto the General Assembly’s plan.

“The argument we made in the letter was that the city had voted as a unit in both federal and state elections,” he said. “We vote at large for city council. To divide a small city where there’s commonality of interest between two state Senate districts seems unnecessary.”

Bramsen says the governor’s rejection of General Assembly’s proposal was in keeping with the spirit of his original mandate.

“Governor McDonnell said quite clearly at the beginning of the process that he wanted people to draw plans in such a way as to not take political competitiveness specifically into account,” he said. “He wanted population and community interest primarily in mind. I think that’s the main reason why he vetoed the bill.”

The General Assembly will resume redistricting work Monday. Further delays in the process may postpone Virginia’s primary, which has already been pushed back once.

To Haulman, the unity of Williamsburg remains a primary concern.

“Let’s hope they don’t divide the city,” he said.

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