News & Politics

Quick Count, Big Impact

Northern Virginia has a lot to gain in the 2010 census—but will it cause political chaos?

Census forms are hitting area mailboxes, and Census Bureau employees will begin knocking on doors of those who don’t return the form. The census will provide the numbers, broken down by neighborhood, that are needed to redraw legislative districts so that they contain roughly equal populations and live up to the “one person, one vote” principle.

Redrawing the political lines will begin in Virginia before anywhere else, because the state’s 150-year history of off-year elections means the task must be done quickly. The census wraps up in December 2010, and precinct-level data for Virginia will be released by early March 2011. Then the fun begins.

Population gains in Northern Virginia will likely shift four to six state-delegate seats and one or two state-Senate seats into the exurbs of DC that run from Prince William and Loudoun counties down through Stafford and Spotsylvania.

To draw these new lines, a plan must pass the Virginia House and Senate, be signed by the governor, and be okayed by the Justice Department. Accomplishing that will be more complicated than ever this year: For the first time since Reconstruction, one political party in Virginia isn’t in control of drawing the new districts—and neither party has a strong enough legislative majority to override a gubernatorial veto.

This year, Republican governor Bob McDonnell and the GOP-controlled House of Delegates will run headfirst into the state Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. Result: a probable stalemate.

A compromise map that protects incumbents on both sides is very unlikely in Richmond, with the Republicans having a strong upper hand in the House of Delegates while Democrats cling to a narrow majority in the state Senate. What’s the upside for Republicans in solidifying Democratic control of the state Senate for the next decade?

Without a compromise, here’s what will likely happen: Once the census data is in, the governor will call a special session of the General Assembly to pass a redistricting plan. Normal April filing deadlines and June primaries will need to be delayed. In 2001, even with the General Assembly moving quickly under one-party control, filing deadlines were put off until July, with primaries for the House of Delegates in August.

What happens if it takes longer? The answer lies in the events of 1981.

For years, Virginia elected delegates by county and city at-large, meaning if a county had six seats, six Republicans and six Democrats plus independents would be on one long ballot together and residents could vote for up to six people.

In 1981, a judge ruled that the new redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered the General Assembly to draw single-member districts across Virginia. Because of the late timing, delegates were allowed to stand for reelection in their old seats in 1981 for one-year terms. After returning to Richmond and passing new legislative lines, the delegates would stand for another one-year term in 1982 before seeking a full two-year term in 1983. Senators elected to a four-year term in 1979 were unaffected and ran for another four-year term in 1983.

Fast-forward to today, and this same scenario seems probable—except this time state senators and delegates are both scheduled to be on the ballot in 2011. Without a quick agreement on new lines, a judge will have to decide what to do with the 2011 elections. The most likely decision will be to follow the 1981 precedent, with legislators on the ballot in 2011 for one-year terms in the Senate and House. This would put all 140 seats in the General Assembly back on the ballot in 2012 as President Obama is seeking reelection.

Many Democrats were elected in 2008 on Obama’s coattails and on the strength of the large youth and minority vote, flipping Virginia’s congressional delegation from 8–3 Republican to 6–5 Democratic. Yet a 2011 deadlock that forces state legislators to run down-ballot from Obama wouldn’t necessarily benefit Democrats.

The Virginia Senate has 22 Democrats and 18 Republicans, with a Republican lieutenant governor ready to break a 20–20 tie. All 18 Republican-held seats voted for John McCain in 2008 and McDonnell in 2009—but so did four Democratic-held seats. Because Senate districts are larger—about 200,000 people each after this year’s census—they’re harder to gerrymander in population centers such as Northern Virginia. The 22 seats that favor Republicans in presidential years are unlikely to change, putting Democratic control of the Senate in jeopardy.

On the other side of the state capitol in the House of Delegates, Republicans now hold a 61–39 edge in the House, but 21 Republican-held districts voted for President Obama in 2008 versus only five House districts held by Democrats that voted for McCain.

So while holding elections in 2012 appears to help Republicans in taking over the state Senate, the elections would also help Democrats in making big gains or even taking back the House of Delegates.

The outer suburbs of Loudoun and Prince William counties have an almost total GOP statehouse delegation but voted in large numbers for Obama, putting many Republicans in jeopardy if they have to run down-ballot in an Obama presidential election.

Overall, two years of redistricting uncertainty doesn’t bode well for Governor McDonnell, whose term ends in January 2014. The success of his agenda may come down to figuring out a plan that brings the Senate and House together and avoids a political stalemate.

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