Virginia is a blue state. Democratic candidates prevailed over their Republican rivals in the last three presidential elections, including the most recent one in which Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 50 percent to 45 percent. Our governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are all Democrats. So too are our two U.S. senators.
Yet even though there are more Democratic voters than Republican in this state, Republicans control our state legislature. In the Virginia Senate, Republicans hold 21 seats compared to the Democrats’ 19. The Republican majority is much greater in the House of Delegates, 66 to 34. And seven of Virginia’s 11 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are Republicans.
How can it be that Republicans dominate state politics despite being outnumbered by Democrats? Why does Virginia have more Republicans than Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives? The answer is gerrymandering, which means the drawing of electoral district boundaries so as to benefit a political party. Using demographic information, it’s possible to draw the electoral map so as to spread voters from one party over several districts in order to deny them a majority in any of them. Or, those supporting a particular party can be concentrated in a single district to reduce their potential influence in other districts.
In Virginia, the state legislature draws the electoral district boundaries. This has allowed Republican legislators to use gerrymandering to create majorities in the state Senate and House of Delegates. They have done the same thing with the U.S. Congressional districts. Because they are in the majority now, Republican legislators are in a position to perpetuate their control even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in this state.
Redistricting occurs every ten years using U.S. census data. In Virginia this is due to happen again in 2021. There is every reason to expect that Republican legislators will continue to use gerrymandering to skew electoral politics in their favor.
Republicans need to understand that redistricting reform is not a partisan issue. A Democrat-controlled legislature is just as likely to use gerrymandering to insulate itself from electoral accountability as a Republican one is. As recently as 1999, Democrats held a majority of seats in the House of Delegates. They outnumbered Republicans in the state Senate from 2008-12 and Republicans hold only a two-seat majority today. And you never know, a widespread backlash against Trump could result in Democratic control of both houses again. Unless gerrymandering is eliminated once and for all, Republicans could easily find that the shoe is on the other foot.
What Virginia needs is an independent, nonpartisan commission to manage the redistricting process. Four other states already have such commissions, and 11 others use different third-party mechanisms rather than allowing the incumbent party to maintain itself in power.
Unfortunately it appears that redistricting reform is dead for this legislative session. Republican lawmakers have successfully blocked several reform proposals, including a proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would have provided, ‘No electoral district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring any political party, incumbent legislator, member of Congress, or other individual or entity.’ Who could be against that?
Democracy means majority rule. Right now we don’t have that in Virginia. And we won’t have it until the state legislature enacts meaningful redistricting reform.