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In Virginia, Advocates Hope To Engage Voters In Redistricting Reform Efforts


If 2016 was about rejecting the political establishment, don't look to Congress or state legislatures. Ninety-seven percent of the incumbents seeking re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives won at a time of historically high disapproval ratings for Congress, too. One reason was gerrymandering by elected officials on both sides of the aisle designed to increase their chances of staying in office. It's an issue that's been around for a long time, and redistricting reform advocates hope that voters are ready to pay more attention to it, as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Brian Cannon was in court most mornings this week, but he started Wednesday by driving me around a suburban neighborhood on the west end of Richmond, Va.

BRIAN CANNON: Can you see where the left is here 'cause it's a little hard to see, Sarah.


Cannon is the executive director of OneVirginia2021, a nonpartisan group that's challenging the constitutionality of 11 state legislative district boundaries. As we drive down a street lined with brick homes, Cannon says many of these boundaries are so convoluted they no longer serve the people who live here.

CANNON: This is a community that's - has a line literally drawn right through it.

MCCAMMON: Cannon and his allies are waging a multi-front war on Virginia's system which allows state lawmakers to draw the lines for state legislative and congressional districts. They're also calling for the creation of an independent redistricting commission similar to ones in Arizona and California. The group is traveling the state, showing a documentary about gerrymandering several times a month...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: People might not say, I'm mad, and gerrymandering's the reason for it.

MCCAMMON: ...And pushing to elect candidates who support redistricting reform in Virginia's State House races this fall.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: United we fight. United we fall. United we fight. United we fall. United we fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The government...

MCCAMMON: Shane Brown runs a theater in Richmond that hosted a screening this week. He's concerned about the increasingly polarized nature of American politics.

SHANE BROWN: I think a lot of people are actually delving more and more into the intricacies of how all this works, especially after seeing how - not knowing it can be crazy when you see it breaking down.

MCCAMMON: Brian Cannon argues that competitively drawn districts would force lawmakers to be more responsive and work across party lines. He says voters are paying attention to how the system works.

CANNON: I think when people scratch the surface on the concept of, are these elections rigged, they might not be the - rigged in the same way that Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump was saying it, but it doesn't take you too long to get to gerrymandering.

MCCAMMON: In the Virginia General Assembly, like in Congress, incumbents have a huge advantage. All who ran in the last election in 2015 kept their seats. It's an issue that's not just firing up voters here.



MCCAMMON: Last month in Montgomery County, Pa., hundreds showed up for a meeting hosted by a group pushing for a nonpartisan redistricting commission.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's kind of amazing to look out and see this room full of people willing to think carefully about democracy and how it works and how it...

MCCAMMON: Other states including Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin have seen recent legal challenges to their boundary lines. The biggest pushback tends to come from incumbents. In Virginia, Republican Chris Jones sponsored the bill that created the current districts for the House of Delegates.

CHRIS JONES: Those who claim to be nonpartisan - if you look at most of their affiliations, they have party affiliations. So it's not nonpartisan.

MCCAMMON: Reform advocates say while no system is likely to be perfectly nonpolitical, it would be better if legislators weren't drawing their own legislative boundaries. A decision in the Virginia case is expected next month. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MGMT SONG, "ASTRO-MANCY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.

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