VCU Library screens professor-produced documentary on history and impact of gerrymandering in Virginia
January 26, 2017
A Virginia Commonwealth University professor has produced a one-hour public television documentary that explores the impact of gerrymandering and argues that Virginia would benefit from an overhauled redistricting system in which political districts are drawn based on legal, demographic and common sense criteria rather than political interests.
Oglesby and OneVirginia2021 Executive Director Brian Cannon will screen the documentary at VCU and hold a Q&A discussion at James Branch Cabell Library on Feb. 13 at 6:45 p.m. For a full list of screenings and airtimes on local PBS stations, visit: http://onevirginia2021.org/gerryrigged/. For the VCU screening, VCU College of Humanities and Sciences is the sponsor with help from the VCU Robertson School of Media and Culture, VCU Libraries and OneVirginia2021.
Oglesby discussed the project with VCU News, saying he hopes the documentary raises awareness in Virginia about gerrymandering and that he hopes it helps build support for reform ahead of the 2021 redistricting process.
How did this documentary come about?
I teach a capstone documentary course at the Robertson School of Media and Culture, as well as having a background in both television news (anchoring and reporting) and in public relations long-form video production. WCVE Community Idea Stations approached me last November about producing and directing a statewide documentary on the subject of gerrymandering and redistricting reform. The documentary is being produced in consultation with OneVirginia2021, a nonpartisan public interest group seeking reform. The “2021” in the group's name refers to the year when statewide and congressional redistricting will next be undertaken — the year following the 2020 census. After a few months of planning, production began in February.
Can you tell me a little about “GerryRIGGED?” What sort of research went into it? Who are some of the people featured?
A guiding principle of this documentary is that, while it promotes reform, it demonstrates how both the problem of gerrymandering and solutions are not confined to any one party or political philosophy. Through consultation with OneVirginia2021 leaders and political leaders and observers throughout the commonwealth and nationally, we have worked to make this topic understandable to the citizens who will ultimately be responsible for affecting change. Among the leaders I interviewed for the documentary were U.S. senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, former Gov. George Allen, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the global director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, and a host of other political leaders and observers.
For someone who might not be familiar with Virginia’s partisan redistricting system, how would you explain it and the problems that it leads to?
“This leads to voter apathy, extreme partisanship, polarization and gridlock.” Every state has its own procedures for redistricting. Some have set up independent commissions, which can either be solely responsible for drawing district lines or for doing so subject to the approval of the state legislature. Virginia currently leaves redistricting up to the legislature which, when coupled with redistricting software that can very specifically design districts to achieve a desired result, creates a situation where politicians are choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives. The resulting districts defy both the compactness requirement in the Virginia constitution and the logic of respecting political boundaries and communities of interest.
To give you an idea how effective this method of protecting incumbents is, all 140 General Assembly seats in Virginia were up for election last fall and, despite $45 million in campaign expenses, few seats were competitive and not a single incumbent was defeated. This leads to voter apathy, extreme partisanship, polarization and gridlock.
What do you hope “GerryRIGGED” achieves?
The name of the documentary is GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy On Its Head. By calling attention to the issue and the movement in many states toward reform, we hope the public will achieve greater awareness that can, if that be the popular will, lead to greater demands for reform in Virginia.
Polls have shown that nonpartisan redistricting is widely supported in Virginia, with opposition in only the single digits. Why do you think redistricting reform has failed time and time again in the General Assembly?
This is the crux of the problem, that the very people who benefit from gerrymandering for incumbency protection are the ones who are drawing the district lines. This means that incumbents are relieved of having to run on their records against serious opposition. It also means incumbents are more concerned about opposition from within the fringes of their own party than from the opposing party, which discourages moderation.
Currently, attempts at reform in the House of Delegates are never given a fair hearing. They are referred to a subcommittee, which is stacked with opponents handpicked by the speaker of the House. Public hearings are scheduled for inopportune times, often 7:30 a.m., after which they are killed by voice vote. These reform measures therefore never even make it to the full committee level, where they would never be subject to a recorded vote.
A common argument against nonpartisan redistricting is that the party in power justifies its gerrymandering by saying the other party did the same thing when they were in power. How do we break this cycle, in your view?
We include proponents of reform who are members of the majority party. They understand that this is a good government issue that benefits society as a whole. Republicans like former Gov. George Allen and state Sen. Jill Vogel, members of the Republican Party whose members hold a majority in both houses of the General Assembly. Democrats like Delegate Kenneth Plum, the longest-serving member of the assembly who began sponsoring reform bills in 1982 when his party was in control. We also look at other states, including Ohio, where Republican Gov. John Kasich has persuaded his Republican colleagues who control their assembly to pass meaningful reform.
Does GerryRIGGED come to any conclusions about specific reforms that would be a good fit for Virginia? Are there other state redistricting systems that would be a good model for our state?
Other than some calls for an independent commission, we do not attempt to suggest what specific reform measures would be best for Virginia. A start would be to establish specific criteria that legislators must use in drawing lines. Establishment of an independent commission or even a constitutional amendment are other proposals that have been made. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The important thing is to start an informed discussion among concerned citizens. That is what this documentary attempts to do.
A version of this article by Brian McNeill ran in University News in October, 2016.