Virginia’s House of Delegates is one of the most gerrymandered bodies in the country. In 2017, Democrats won the statewide popular vote in Virginia’s legislative races by over nine percentage points. Nevertheless, Republicans still held a 51-49 majority in the House of Delegates, thanks to gerrymandering.
But Virginia Democrats may actually get to compete in something approximating free and fair elections next year, thanks to a pair of documents handed down by a federal court on Friday.
Both documents arise from a case entitled Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections. This case, which was originally filed in 2014, alleges that 12 of the state’s House of Delegates districts are unlawful racial gerrymanders.
Though the case has been through several twists and turns since 2014, including a trip up to the Supreme Court, two members of a three-judge panel eventually concluded that 11 of the state’s districts are, indeed, illegal gerrymanders.
The case is currently pending before the Supreme Court, but the Court appears mostly interested in a tangential question regarding whether the Republican-controlled House of Delegates is allowed to appeal the case. Notably, the Supreme Court did not stay lower court proceedings that will redraw Virginia’s gerrymandered maps.
In the first of the two documents handed down on Friday, the three-judge panel considering Virginia’s gerrymander also refused to stay its map-drawing proceedings. Though that order leaves open the possibility that Republicans could seek another stay “after the Court’s remedial plan is adopted,” such a stay appears unlikely.
The second document is a report by Bernard Grofman, a University of California, Irvine political scientist that the court charged with devising plans to redraw Virginia’s maps. Grofman’s report is 131-pages long, goes into considerable detail about the state’s districts, and offers a few alternative plans. The punchline, however, is that Grofman anticipates that the court will need to redraw between 21 and 26 of the state’s House of Delegates districts.
As a general rule, when a court determines that some of the districts in a state’s legislative maps are the product of racial gerrymandering, the remedy is to only redraw the districts that were shaped by improper racial considerations. As a practical matter, however, it is typically impossible to redraw those districts without also redrawing surrounding districts, so Grofman’s estimates account for both the 11 gerrymandered districts and the nearby districts that must be changed to accommodate them.
So it appears likely that a significant chunk of Virginia’s maps will look quite different in 2019 than it did in 2017. That’s likely to be good news for Democrats. While it remains to be seen what the final maps will look like, the current maps are so egregiously gerrymandered than any alterations are likely to benefit the Democratic Party.
And that, in turn, raises the possibility that the increasingly blue state of Virginia could become a haven for progressive ideas. Virginia has a Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, but Northam has thus far been hobbled by a Republican legislature. If Democrats perform as well in 2019 as they did in 2017, but with slightly less gerrymandered maps, Northam could soon find up himself with a much friendlier state legislature.