On Tuesday a federal court ruled Virginia’s congressional map unconstitutional, finding it to be in violation of the 14th Amendment and ordering it to be redrawn by next spring.
This, Hampton University professor Wayne Dawkins thinks, creates an opening for a fairer, healthier and more competitive political atmosphere to be born.
“We have people who get into the office and sit there forever with no real challenge, and it’s unhealthy. Our politics have gotten especially toxic,” the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications professor told The Root.
Although state lawmakers have been ordered to redraw the lines by April 1, 2015, Dawkins thinks that the nation has reached a point where a nonpartisan commission should draw the lines because “you can’t trust politicians to do it, whether they’re Republican or Democrat.
“They just seem to have lost the ability to do the right thing. … Our congressional districts are so polarized, either hard right or hard left, no one compromises anymore. … It’s ‘I’m going to dig in my heels,’ and here’s an opportunity here in Virginia and in many other states where elected officials … are going to really have to work for their vote,” Dawkins explains. “Which means you build coalitions, which means you work with people you may not know well, or may not be comfortable with, but you’re going to need their vote to win elections, because right now we basically have a democratic monarchy.”
Dawkins does expect Republicans to appeal in a case that could go right up to the Supreme Court; however, he also expects them to lose if they do. It’s something he’s already seen before, and if precedence means anything, the conservatives are out of luck.
In 2012 the former journalist published a biography called City Son: Andrew W. Cooper’s Impact on Modern-Day Brooklyn, detailing Cooper’s challenging of the Voting Rights Act and his claim that the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York City’s Brooklyn borough was racially gerrymandered.
“I grew up in [Bedford-Stuyvesant] and I worked for Cooper after college. … [The area] was sliced and diced into parts of five other congressional districts. The courts made a ruling very similar to this one in Virginia, and [the Bedford-Stuyvesant] boundary lines were redrawn. It was consolidated into the compact, continuous area it already was, and that resulted in the election of Shirley Chisholm, who was an iconic figure,” he explains. “So now we fast-forward, nearly 50 years, to now, and Rep. Robert Scott’s district is the lone predominantly black district in Virginia. The courts have said that in the last census when the boundary lines were redrawn, an already predominantly black district was made even blacker, which made no sense.
“It’s a very safe district, and the court said it was racially gerrymandered in order to protect Republican incumbents nearby. So, what that means is what we may see is a second district that may be near-predominantly black … it’s what some political scientists here have been calling a minority-opportunity district that may be about 40 to 45 percent,” he adds. “It’ll present the probability that an African American or person of color will be elected to Congress, and that will probably create two people: Scott, who’s a longtime member of the House, and someone else.”
Such a change in diversity, Dawkins says, would only make sense for a state where 1 out of every 5 residents is African American.
Of course, Dawkins is not naive regarding what many see as the primary purpose of redistricting: a method to protect incumbents, continually securing districts. However, it has become so “egregious,” as he puts it, that a change is warranted.
“We count on elected officials to do the job, but they’ve shown that they just don’t have the will to, at least not do it in such an over-the-top way,” the professor says. “If you have the power, you’re going to try and get some advantage, but this 3rd District case became a federal case because it was so egregious … it’s ridiculously drawn. It doesn’t connect. I know we have a huge river that runs through our area, but the district is broken into five pieces that don’t connect, and we could draw something better.”
As it stands, Dawkins says, it is not voters who are choosing their leaders but politicians who are choosing their voters.
“It matters profoundly that we try to get this right. It’s out of balance. This country is just much more diverse. It’s not the sexiest topic, but redistricting is something that demands a lot more citizen engagement,” he says. “The current [national leader] is not King Obama, he’s President Obama. … There’s only so many things he can do on his own by executive order, so it’s important that people choose the kind of Congress they want that will get things done. Otherwise we’ll just be dug in and nothing will get done.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.