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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

High-Schoolers See Through Gerrymandering

By Steve Lavery

Teaching my Government classes, I've been given a glimpse into the world of politics through the unfettered eyes of young adults. Those classes are an accurate cross-section of our region and represent all levels of political literacy--and one thing is quite clear: students pick up problems very quickly. 

In my lessons, I explain how political districts in Virginia are chosen and the impact of such a process, and students conclude very quickly that "it doesn't make sense." They're right: Virginia is the third most gerrymandered state in the union and our current map is configured to leave only a handful of elections that are truly competitive.  

To quote my students, "What's the point in voting if they already decide who we get to vote for?"  This is an issue that resonates with them. The lines are not clouded; the concepts not difficult. 

Teenage students realize, as do thinking adults, that gerrymandering marginalizes moderate voices and equates to reverse democratization. An aspect to what we teach, according to the Virginia Standards of Learning, is that compromise is a cornerstone of democracy.

Here are just a couple citations from the History and Social Science SOLs for Virginia and United States Government:

GOVT.3  The student will demonstrate knowledge of the concepts of democracy by

a) recognizing the fundamental worth and dignity of the individual;

b) recognizing the equality of all citizens under the law;

c) recognizing majority rule and minority rights;

d) recognizing the necessity of compromise.

GOVT.6  The student will demonstrate knowledge of local, state, and national elections by

e) examining the impact of reapportionment and redistricting on elections;

g) analyzing voter turnout.

Compromise requires that opposing forces find middle ground for the betterment and best interests of all. Gerrymandered districts make the middle ground a no-man's land. I teach my students that most Americans place themselves on the middle of the political continuum and that in general elections, it's support from the middle that most candidates are trying to win. Unfortunately, in gerrymandered districts primary elections are usually the de facto final election, and primary voters tend to be more extreme than those who vote in the general elections. This pattern can be the deathbed of compromise.

The battle over redistricting in Virginia is heating up and while recent strides have been made, we have only traveled a few short steps in a miles-long journey that must be completed before 2021, when our next district maps will be redrawn.  Political wonks and talking heads tend to over use the term “non-partisan” in ways that confuse or deflate the value of what that really means. Our mission is to see that redistricting is done in a transparent and trans-partisan way. 

While ensuring that redistricting is done right is vital for the survival of true democracy, change will be resisted by interested money and entrenched power networks that are not used to having a light shown on their process. But when it happens, citizens, future generations and the political system itself will benefit. Organizations like have made it their mission to see that Virginia establishes a system that rises above party. We must transform our system to encourage transparency that transcends politics and makes our political system one that embodies true democracy.

The old trope depicting politics as a group of old white men with cigars making declarations and coronations in smoky back-room meetings has become a cliché for a reason. While it may not exactly match up with reality, the fact that this image still resonates with voters is damaging to democracy.  Students are already weary of a process that flies in the face of common sense. We are charged with getting them to “buy in,” but their skepticism seems justified. Government and civics teachers are forced to explain that not only does gerrymandering exist, but that it's successfully stripped them of their voice and the principles that they are just learning are the cornerstones of our form of government, such as individual worth and compromise. Our young people are at risk of complete and, sadly,  voluntary disenfranchisement. 
After a lesson on gerrymandering, I give my students a chance to play the partisan game and gerrymander a district using an online simulator. They take it very seriously, some obsessing about solving the problem of fair representation while still meeting the criteria.

It's sad to note that Virginia's map would fail this game because our districts are so gerrymandered the simulator would reject them.

Lavery, a member of the Pulaski County Education Association, teaches Government at Pulaski County High School.




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