Harrisonburg Takes On The Citizen – Part One

As part of our first birthday celebrations, we asked community members to submit a piece about Harrisonburg – it’s past, present, and future. This is part one in the series.

“What makes this off-year election so important? Redistricting.”

By Mark Finks, Planning Commissioner for the City of Harrisonburg

Oh joy of joys, ‘tis the season for yard signs and sample ballots. It’s an election year in Virginia! But if you have lived in Virginia for more then a few years you already know that you can never escape an election in Virginia, because we are in a state of perpetual election. You are told every year from your friend down the street who volunteers at the polls that THIS year is an important election. I’ve probably knocked on your door at some point telling you the same shtick, and you probably told me to go bug your neighbors down the street.  If you ever heard someone mention the word Gerrymandered when you were complaining about your state representatives in the General Assembly, then you will probably have a hint on why this year is such a big deal. 

I know you have heard this broken record every year in Virginia. But I REALLY mean it this time, all of those other elections were peanuts compared to 2019, because this election we are voting for the whole kit and caboodle. Not only is every state Senator and House of Delegate representative on the ballot this year, but also, this year will literally shape our districts and decide how we allocate federal funding for the next ten years. Ten years doesn’t seem that long, but then I remember that in 2009, Obama was in the first year of his presidency, The Black Eyed Peas were still non-stop hit makers, and Lost hadn’t yet let us all down with that terrible finale.  It almost seems a lifetime ago in Trump years. 

As most of us know from civics class, per the constitution every ten years the Federal Government conducts a Census. The State Government will use the data from the Census to redistrict the Virginia House of Delegates and Virginia State Senate districts, which will also decide where and how federal funding will be spent to address a variety of issues. 

The last two times the state went through this process (2000, and 2010) the Republican party had control of the Governorship and one of the bodies of the General Assembly. The Governor is probably the most important part of this process as he/she is the one who will appoint the commission to start the process of drawing our new maps, but the General Assembly finalizes the maps once the commission finishes. The Governor has the veto power to send back any map that he/she feels doesn’t meet Virginia Constitutional mandates, though the map still goes through the General Assembly first.  

In practice, the Republican Party has played it very loose in applying one of the state constitution’s requirements for districts, and that would be how compact a district is. Take a look at the picture posted above of the House of Delegate District 58 map and you will see what I mean.  If you can explain how it makes sense to have a district start at Massanutten, loop around Charlottesville and end west of Fork Union I’ll eat my hat. Some of these districts have been drawn so badly that the state Supreme Court had to step in and force a few districts to be redrawn this year. 

In the past, disenfranchised groups could rely on the Voting Rights Act to protect them from The General Assembly redrawing a district in a fashion that dilutes the vote of targeted communities. With the 2013 Supreme Court decision on Shelby V Holder this will be the first time since the 1970 Census we won’t have those protections. 

So it will be up to the voters on November 5th to decide how the redistricting process should work.  They can either give us a split decision with both parties, or put it all in the hands of the Democrats.  I hope whatever the decision is we can finally get a fair redistricting process.

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