McLEAN, Va. — By almost any measure, Democrats crushed Republicans in Virginia’s elections last week, sweeping all three statewide offices and knocking out more than a dozen incumbent GOP legislators.
Add up the votes in all 100 House districts, and Democrats beat Republicans by a 10-point margin, 54 percent to 44 percent. That’s an even wider margin than Democrat Ralph Northam’s victory over Ed Gillespie in the gubernatorial race.
By one critical measure, though, the GOP held its own: Republicans are poised to keep a slender 51-49 majority in the House of Delegates, assuming they hold onto slim leads in three races that appear to be headed for recounts.
Democrats and some activists say gerrymandering insulated Republicans from the will of the people.
“You have this tsunami of an election … and it’s weird we live in a democratic republic where the elections don’t matter,” said Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021, which advocates for a nonpartisan redistricting process.
Cannon said the districts in Virginia are drawn to give Republicans a huge head start. He estimated that if Republicans had the same 10-point advantage Democrats won on Tuesday, the GOP would have won 66 seats or more.
House Democratic Caucus Leader David Toscano agreed.
“Without doing an elaborate statistical analysis, I can’t tell you that all of it is gerrymandering,” Toscano said. “But I can tell you that a lot of it is gerrymandering. Republicans consciously tried to pack as many Democrats as they could into certain districts in the last redistricting. That was clearly by design.”
Republicans, of course, disagree. Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for House Republican Leader Kirk Cox, points out that Northam won in 58 of 100 districts. If the districts were drawn to dilute Democratic influence, Northam would have won in fewer districts, he argues.
Challenges to Virginia’s state House boundaries, which were redrawn after the 2010 Census so that each district would represent roughly 80,000 voters, are active in state and federal court. Nationally, the Supreme Court is weighing a case out of Wisconsin that could have a significant effect on how lines are drawn after the next census in 2020.
Interestingly, in the federal court case, Virginia Republicans defended themselves against allegations of racial gerrymandering — which is illegal under federal law — by admitting that the lines were drawn to create a partisan advantage, which is more of a gray area under federal law. In the Wisconsin case, the justices are considering if redistricting can be too partisan.
National analyses have shown that Virginia’s House of Delegates districts produce inordinately high numbers of “wasted votes,” which can be a function of gerrymandering, said Rebecca Green, a professor of election law at the College of William and Mary.
Wasted votes occur in two ways: when a person votes for a losing candidate, or when one district is so overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican that a person’s candidate gets far more than the majority necessary to win. The plaintiffs say that maps drawn to create an enduring and unfair pattern of wasted votes violate the constitutional rights of members of the disadvantaged party.
“The premise behind gerrymandering is to try to maximize the wasted votes of your opponent,” Green said, by “packing” one party’s voters into a district to clear the field in a neighboring district, or by “cracking” a party’s majority in one area by splitting it into multiple districts where they get outvoted.
In Virginia, the allegations of gerrymandering have largely focused on packing a small number of districts with Democratic voters. A federal lawsuit has accused Republicans of packing black voters into a handful of heavily Democratic districts to make the surrounding districts favorable to Republicans.
Some “wasted votes,” though, are function of demographics, not gerrymandering. In heavily Democratic Arlington County, for instance, it would be impossible to draw the lines in a way to make districts competitive for Republicans.
“It’s a mix” of demographics and gerrymandering that results in Republicans keeping control of the House even when they lose badly in the collective popular vote, Cannon said.
Democrats have been complicit in the gerrymandering, Toscano acknowledged. Some Democrats who benefited from those packed districts supported the redistricting map because it made their lives easier in seeking re-election.
Going forward, Toscano said there is an opportunity to create a nonpartisan redistricting process because the legislature is so evenly divided that neither side can easily push through a partisan plan.
“Hopefully Republicans will see that it’s in their best interest,” he said. “Now is the perfect time to do it.”
Cannon agreed that the time has come. He said the legislature needs to turn the process over to a nonpartisan panel. Even if the parties are evenly divided, he said politicians left to their own devices will simply craft maps designed to protect incumbents if they lack the political strength to favor one party over another.
“It is a populist wave in this country, whether it’s the Tea Party or the anti-Trump resistance,” he said. “People don’t like incumbent protection plans. They don’t like seeing politicians rigging the system.”