"How Gerrymandering Gave Virginia Republicans A House Supermajority"
CREDIT: Virginia Division of Legislative Services
Though Democrats appear to have swept Virginia’s statewide offices last Tuesday, Republicans will hold a 67 to 33 super-majority in the state’s House of Delegates. But a ThinkProgress analysis of the votes cast reveals that a significantly higher percentage of total voters cast their ballots for Democratic Delegate candidates than the percentage of seats Democrats actually won.
In January of 2011, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) appointed a bipartisan commission to recommend fair legislative maps to the state legislature. The legislature proceeded to completely ignore their suggestions, instead pursuing partisan considerations. In exchange for allowing the then-Democratic Senate majority to redraw its own maps, Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw said he had reached a gentleman’s agreement to give the GOP House leadership total control of their own chamber’s redistricting.
Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) signed a redistricting bill that April, with an even more GOP-friendly House of Delegates map than the one that was in effect for the previous decade. House Democrats lost seven seats that November, shrinking their minority caucus from 39 seats (out of 100) to just 32.
But despite the heavily Republican state House of Delegates majority, Virginia is widely considered a “purple state” — voting for Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Both candidates won their races with less than 54 percent of the vote.
Virginia Republica Chairman Pat Mullins conceded shortly before the 2013 election that lower turnout would help his party and higher turnout would help the Democrats. But even with 1.6 million fewer voters showing up than participated in the 2012 presidential election, the State Board of Elections currently lists the Democratic statewide candidates as having won with 47.75 percent, 55.12 percent, and 49.89 percent of the votes (compared to 45.23 percent, 44.54 percent, and 49.88 percent for the Republican nominees). That means more than 47 percent of Virginia voters backed all three statewide Democrats. Assuming all those voters would have also prefer a Democratic legislator, a proportional legislative map would give Democrats a minimum of 47 seats.
Some voters, of course, split their tickets. And in 24 Democratic-controlled districts and 33 Republican-controlled districts, the other other party did not even bother to field a candidate. Still, out of the 2,023,167 votes cast last Tuesday, 817,067 (40.3 percent) voted for a Democratic candidate. 1,087,976 voters (53.8 percent) voted for a Republican; the rest backed other candidates or wrote in a name. Democrats got 42.9 percent of the votes for major party candidates, Republicans 51.1 percent. A proportional map based on this (even with nine more Republican candidates than Democratic ones) would still give a minimum of 40 seats to the Democrats.
And if one excludes the 57 uncontested districts, Democratic candidates got 429,099 (45.5 percent) of the 942,844 votes cast for those 43 seats (Republicans 504,832, or 53.5 percent). Combining their uncontested seats with 45.5 percent of the 43 contested races, their minority would be at least 43 seats.
Gerrymandering in Virginia is not a new phenomenon nor is it limited to one party. In fact, Sen. Saslaw reportedly said that if Democrats don’t pick up seats in the Senate after his 2011 redistricting maps, then he hasn’t done a very good job. Gov. McDonnell forced minor modifications from the original plan, but under Saslaw’s compromise his party lost two seats and his majority.
But regardless of whether both sides abuse the process, because the GOP House of Delegates majority carefully gerrymandered the maps in 2011, Democrats will begin the 2014 legislative session with just one-third of the seats in the House representing a closely divided state. And it appears likely that after the 2020 census, it will be a GOP-majority that designs the maps for the next decade.