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Could Supreme Court Decision Change Virginia Voting Districts?

By Jon Cawley

Some pundits are speculating that the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case on gerrymandering in Wisconsin could have a big impact on Virginia elections. Old Dominion political scientist Josh Zingher thinks that is unlikely. But the court's decision to hear the case, he said, may spur future litigation.

At issue is how congressional districts are drawn, and whether it is constitutional for political parties to gerrymander boundaries to benefit partisan interests. If the Supreme Court rules in the Wisconsin case that the practice violates the U.S. Constitution, the decision could overturn a deeply entrenched practice in Virginia.

A divided three-judge federal panel ruled last year that a redistricting plan passed by Republican leadership in Wisconsin in 2011 so favored the majority party that it violated voters' First Amendment and equal rights protections. That case is expected to be heard during the U.S. Supreme Court's October session.

Another case in Virginia also might reach the nation's highest court. In March, a Circuit Court judge in Richmond ruled against a petition contending that 11 of the state's legislative districts are drawn so expansively that they do not comply with constitutional requirements.

Zingher said the Wisconsin case is significant because the Supreme Court has previously ruled on gerrymandering intended to dilute minority votes, but not on partisan gerrymandering. Further, the court has never adopted a metric for evaluating gerrymanders -- something being considered in the Wisconsin case.

Zingher said he does not believe the Supreme Court will accept the proposed "Efficiency Gap" measure, but if it does, that will have "a big impact in Virginia." In that case, the ruling would impact boundaries not only for congressional seats, but also for state houses, city councils, school boards and all the way down the list.

"People should definitely pay attention," said Zingher, an assistant professor of political science and geography. "The fact the Supreme Court is hearing the case is important. Even if they reject it, does the case speak to the Supreme Court being willing to hear other (partisan gerrymandering) cases?"

As for the Virginia case, Zingher said he believes the state will appeal and eventually petition the Supreme Court, but he'd be surprised if the high court hears the case because, legally, it doesn't cover new ground.

Zingher said he believes politicians need to change how districts are drawn. He favors a model similar to that of his home state of Iowa, where districts are drawn by an independent commission following strict rules.

"The question is, 'What is the goal?'" he said. "Are we drawing safe districts for politicians, or districts that respond to the will of the people?"

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