Tag Archives: Brian Cannon

Less Turnover than the Supreme Soviet

by Brian Cannon

The United States has a dearth of competitive Congressional elections. Of the 435 voting seats in the House of Representatives, only 36 were competitive this past November. Politicians have brilliantly gerrymandered out almost all competition from their districts to ensure themselves easy re-elections. With only about 8% of our elections considered competitive in 2016, President Reagan’s words in 1988 still ring true:

With a 98% rate of re-election, there’s less turnover in the House [of Representatives] than in the Supreme Soviet, and a seat in Congress is one of the most secure jobs in America.

Many factors work against competitive districts – residential sorting, incumbency advantages in campaign finance laws, and gerrymandering all play a role. The first two, however, have First Amendment protections that make them tricky, if not impossible, to address through systematic reform. The last – gerrymandering – does not have a constitutional protection and there are clear legislative paths to address this problem. Confronting gerrymandering also seems to address this competitiveness problem.

A careful examination of the few competitive districts we have shows a clear take away: States with redistricting reform are producing a much larger share of competitive districts than those without reform. Competitive districts are coming from states like Iowa, California, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Washington and even New Jersey. Disproportionately so.

• In 2016, of the 36 competitive seats, 15 came from just seven reform states (41.67%).
• In 2014, of the 46 competitive seats, 21 came from those seven reform states (45.65%).

The reform states make up 30% of the seats in the House of Representatives and have created 44% of our competition. Projecting this out with some back-of-the-envelope math based on 2014 and 2016 numbers, we’d have about 60 total competitive seats for our lower chamber if the remaining 44 states adopted reform. Reform doesn’t ensure competition everywhere, but it helps take the politician’s hand from the scale in potential swing districts.

Fortunately, more states are coming on board. Ohio and New York have instituted reform for the upcoming decade with promise of other states following suit. As Henrico resident Mark Hile said recently in a letter supporting redistricting reform to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “If we want better government, let’s expose it to some competition.”

Brian Cannon is executive director of OneVirginia2021.

Think Elections Are Rigged? Here’s One Way to Make the System Fairer

by Brian Cannon

“Rigged” is the word of the election season. Donald Trump said this week that the debate was rigged. Bernie Sanders supporters used the term to describe the party’s control of the primary process. The meme is resonating with voters, too. Here at One Virginia 2021, we’ve taken notice as well: Our new documentary film produced by WCVE on gerrymandering is called GerryRIGGED.*

People have the sense that the fix is in. Politics feels like a broken system run by people who get rich inside their “public service” and enjoy an unbelievable re-election rate. What do we mean by this re-election rate? Consider, all 435 voting seats are up for re-election in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cook Political Report says that only 37 are competitive!  That’s embarrassing.

Last November, when all 140 seats in Virginia’s General Assembly were up, 122 of the members chose to run for re-election.  All 122 were re-elected.

In November of 2014, when Sen. Mark Warner and Ed Gillespie were running neck and neck in a U.S. Senate race in which the candidates were separated by less than 1% of the vote, all congressional seats in Virginia were also up for re-election.  In not one of those congressional races did a challenger come within 15%.

I hate to be so disheartening as to say the system is rigged, but it sure does appear that way for incumbent politicians.

So can we fix it?  In 2011, college students competed in map drawing exercise put on by the Wason Center for Public Policy with the same software the politicians use to gerrymander. Only the college students were using good government criteria such as:

– keeping localities together, not carving up neighborhoods;
– respecting communities of interest;
– drawing districts that pass compactness measurements and also the eye test; and importantly
– not drawing districts to benefit one party or politician.

It’s not rocket science, just good government.

The result?  The student maps were better. In each individual category and in even pairs of good government categories, the student maps were superior to the political maps. The average number of competitive districts in the Virginia Senate drawn by politicians was 6.89 seats out of 40. The average for the students was 9.67. For the House of Delegates, the politicians averaged 24 competitive seats and the students averaged 26.5 competitive seats, with one winning map having 31 competitive seats. Incidentally, “competitive” refers to races that could be as far apart as 55% to 45%. Competition is so hard to come by, the window has to be wide.

For more on the competition’s results and a wonderful read on the history of Virginia gerrymandering, please see Altman and McDonald’s article in the University of Richmond Law Review.

We can do this better, folks. States as politically and geographically diverse as Iowa, Ohio, Arizona, and Washington have all figured this out.  Good Virginians on both sides of the aisle are pushing for reform in both chambers of the General Assembly. Perhaps the the concern about “rigged” elections will embolden more people to step forward and call for electoral reform.

* Merriam-Webster does an excellent job of reporting on the opaque origins of the term “rig” as a verb meaning “to manipulate or control usually by deceptive or dishonest means.”

Virginia’s Email Scandal

House District 72 - does this look compact to you?

House District 72 – does this look compact to you?

by Brian Cannon

Today the Supreme Court of Virginia will hear a case about emails politicians don’t want you to see.  You may miss the story in the news because this has nothing to do with presidential politics. Rather it’s about Virginia’s 2011 gerrymander.

Five years ago, Virginia was split with Democrats in control of the Virginia Senate and Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Governor Bob McDonnell appointed a blue-ribbon commission to propose less partisan maps for Virginia. Unfortunately, legislators did not take the directive seriously. Instead of agreeing to a reasonable approach that benefited Virginia voters, the partisan political leaders of both chambers agreed to feather their own nests. The Republicans in the House passed the Democratic gerrymander of the Senate and the Democrats in the Senate passed the Republican gerrymander of the House. Bi-partisanship at its worst.

Which lawsuit is this again? In 2015, Citizens from across the political spectrum joined to sue the Commonwealth over the lack of compactness in Virginia’s General Assembly districts. A quick look at the districts will give you a clear view of how non-compact these districts actually are. They include six drawn by the Democrats in the Senate and five drawn by the Republicans in the House. By specifically avoiding districts affected by the complication of the Voting Rights Act, the suit is a clear shot at Article II Section 6’s requirement for compactness without all of the complications of the moving target that is today’s VRA.

This lawsuit is funded by the non-partisan OneVirginia2021 with lawyers and a significant discount provided by Wyatt Durrette’s firm DurrettCrump. This is not the same initiative as the Democratic National Redistricting Trust challenge of racial gerrymandering. One of those cases changed Virginia’s congressional boundaries and the other is before the Supreme Court of the United States this fall.

So how do emails work into this?  In the discovery phase of this compactness trial (yeah, we still haven’t gotten to trial yet), the trial judge in Richmond made a ruling about the scope of legislative privilege. The plaintiffs argued legislative privilege should be narrowly construed — about a foot wide.  The defendants argued it is a broad privilege — about a mile wide. Judge Marchant of the Richmond Circuit Court ruled, in effect, that the privilege was a few feet wide. The House of Delegates complied and has been turning over emails and other related documents since.

>In an unprecedented move to avoid turning over their emails, four sitting state senators requested instead to be held in contempt of court. The court obliged, fining each senator $100 a day since early April. The four sitting senators are all Democrats — the same ones behind the gerrymandering in 2011. Originally, the group included one sitting Republican Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, but he complied with the court order, stating to the Washington Post:

I’m a lawyer and I’m never going to refuse a court order. … You just don’t do that. Number two, I’m a public servant and I’m doing the public’s work. Number three, I believe in transparency.

If only Senators Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, George Barker, D-Alexandria, John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Dave Marsden, D-Burke, saw it that way and complied with the trial court’s order.

Brian Cannon is executive director of OneVirginia2021.