Virginia Gerrymandering Case Could Affect Politics Nationwide

Mar 20, 2017

 

Lawyer Wyatt Durette being interviews by the press outside of court in Richmond.
Credit Mallory Noe-Payne

 

A state trial heard in Richmond last week may seem technical:  it was about the nitty gritty details of how Virginia’s lawmakers draw the boundaries of the districts they represent. But, as Mallory Noe-Payne reports, the judge’s ruling could impact the tone of politics across the country.

According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans and Democrats now have more negative views of the opposing party than at any point in nearly a quarter century.

Why? Lawyer Wyatt Durette says it could be because of a little something called gerrymandering.

 

“In the redistricting process, the legislatures focus on themselves," he says. "The highest priority to them is to further their personal interest in getting re-elected and their political parties’ interest in electing as many people from that party as possible.”

And that’s what Durette argued in Judge W. Reilly Marchant’s courtroom in Richmond last week.

 

Marchant got his job because Virginia’s lawmakers put him there. Now those same lawmakers are in his court room, defending the decisions they made when they drew their districts back in 2011.

Durette argued against them.  He says by and large, politicians care more about protecting their own backs than creating districts that are competitive. The effect is that Republicans compete against other Republicans for votes, and the same goes for Democrats. Lawmakers have to appeal to radical voices, rather than moderate ones.

“Ideally what would be happening is that Republicans and Democrats would be talking to one another, and if you had less partisan people up there that is what would be going on," says Durette. "And that’s the only way you solve that problem.”

Durette, a one time Republican lawmaker himself, has become a crusader against the politicized districting process. He's now working with the advocacy group OneVirginia2021, and together they're asking Judge Marchant to take the position that there’s a better way to draw districts.

If Marchant rules in their favor, it could have far reaching consequences -- potentially influencing district lines, politics and policy in more than 30 states.  

That's because those states, like Virginia, have constitutional requirements that districts be 'compact,' a term that's lacked clear definition. Durette and OneVirginia2021 are asking Judge Marchant to accept a definition, along with clear test, for compactness.

 

It's a risky position to take, but if the judge sides with them it could set a new standard for legislatures across the country.