Vesilind v. Virginia State Board of Elections
About the Case
The Virginia Constitution requires that the legislature give priority to specific, non-partisan criteria in drawing legislative districts, including compactness. The intent of this requirement is to make it more difficult to gerrymander electoral districts by preventing legislators from drawing districts that are unreasonably spread out, or have excessively contorted boundaries. In 2015, a group of individual voters in Virginia challenged the 2011 Virginia General Assembly maps as violating the state constitution, arguing that the map drawers subordinated compactness and prioritized partisan criteria in order to achieve self-interested political objectives.
The state court below found the question of whether constitutional redistricting criteria were subordinated for partisan gain “fairly debatable,” and deferred to the legislature. Plaintiffs are challenging the ruling in the Virginia Supreme Court. On behalf of the League of Women Voters of Virignia, Campaign Legal Center(CLC) and Sidley Austin LLP filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the plaintiffs, highlighting the increasing threat of partisan gerrymandering to fair representation and effective democracy, and the egregious gerrymander of the Virginia House of Delegates map.
What’s at Stake
Partisan gerrymandering is fundamentally undemocratic, and poses a critical threat to effective democracy. Because of technological advancements, map drawers are able to target voters with surgical precision, and can move individual voters in or out of a particular district in order to maximize partisan advantage. Yet this same technology makes fulfilling the constitutional requirement of compactness a straightforward procedure, even while ensuring that opposing parties are treated symmetrically under the districting plan.
In 2011, Virginia legislators engaged in an open and extreme partisan gerrymander of the General Assembly maps. The efficiency gap, a mathematical analysis of how effectively voters from each party are distributed among voting districts, demonstrates that the 2011 and 2013 House of Delegates maps exhibit a strong and durable pro-Republican bias. The notably large efficiency gaps in Virginia illustrate the extent to which legislators successfully elevated political considerations over non-partisan criteria in order to create an entrenched Republican majority in the House of Delegates.
As partisan gerrymandering becomes more effective, its effects become more problematic. Gerrymandered districts are less competitive and when representatives don’t face any real electoral threat, they are less accountable to their electorate. Political discourse in turn becomes more polarized, and voters disengage as they realize that political outcomes are predetermined by district lines. In the 2015 elections, 62% of House of Delegate candidates ran unopposed, and in another 9% there was only token third party opposition. Only six of the 100 Delegate races, and five of the 40 Senate races were truly competitive, and all 122 incumbents won re-election. At the same time, the state of Virginia had one of its lowest voter turnout rates on record, with only 29.1% of registered voters casting a ballot.
It is doubtful the 2011 Virginia General Assembly map could have been drawn without subordinating other redistricting criteria to partisan priorities. Partisan gerrymandering has undermined representative democracy in Virginia by allowing politicians to choose their own voters. Removing the power to influence the outcome of elections and hold representatives accountable to the people is antithetical to the founding principles of American democracy.