The Virginia wave would have been so much worse for Republicans if it weren’t for gerrymandering

Republicans may still maintain control of Virginia's lower house, largely thanks to gerrymandered maps.

Virginia Democratic Delegate-elect Danica Roem  (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Democratic Delegate-elect Danica Roem (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Democratic candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates won more than 220,000 more votes than their Republican counterparts. Democrats won the two-party contest with Republicans by more than 9 percentage points. Nevertheless, Republicans may still maintain control of Virginia’s lower house, largely due to gerrymandering.

Before the election, Republicans enjoyed a 66-34 supermajority in the House of Delegates. As of this writing, Democrats picked up 15 of the 17 seats they need to take back the majority. Three seats, all currently held by Republicans, are currently too close to call. One Republican delegate, David Yancey, currently holds a 12 vote lead over his Democratic opponent Shelly Simonds.

When all the votes are counted, in other words, the result will be either a very narrow GOP majority, a very narrow Democratic majority, or a tied legislature — despite the fact that Democratic candidates outperformed Republicans by about 9.4 percentage points.

ThinkProgress calculated this figure using unofficial vote counts published by the Virginia Department of Elections — the final numbers will change slightly as provisional ballots are counted and as some ballots are recounted. You can check our work here.

Two caveats should be noted to this 9.4 percentage point figure. The first is that Democratic vote totals are inflated somewhat because 27 Democratic candidates either ran unopposed or only faced minor party opposition, while only 12 Republican candidates ran without a Democratic opponent. One would expect to see a large number of Democrats running unopposed in a map that is gerrymandered against them, however, due to a practice known as “packing.”

Packing is a common method of gerrymandering where a legislature controlled by one party “packs” members of the other party into a small number of highly concentrated districts. Thus, while Republican voters are fairly evenly distributed throughout the state, Democratic voters are often jammed into super-Democratic districts where their votes won’t impact the surrounding races. Candidates in packed districts often run unopposed, because the entire point of packing a district is to make that district as favorable to a single-party as possible — at the expense of members of that party in other parts of the state.

In any event, the Democratic margin of 9.4 percentage points in the House of Delegates races is only slightly higher than Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam’s 8.9 percentage point win over Republican Ed Gillespie.

The other caveat is that geography often gives Republicans an advantage in legislative redistricting on top of any advantage they gain through gerrymandering. Because Democrats tend to cluster in cities, while Republicans tend to be more spread out, randomly drawn maps may naturally pack Democrats into densely Democratic urban districts.

Nevertheless, Republicans’ geographic advantage can be overcome by maps drawn to neutralize this problem. And geography is unlikely to account for more than a fraction of the over 9 point advantage Republicans enjoy under Virginia’s current maps.

A lawsuit currently pending before the Supreme Court challenges partisan gerrymandering, and a majority of the Court appeared sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ arguments during oral arguments last October. Should this lawsuit fail, moreover, Governor-elect Northam is now in a position to veto any unfairly drawn maps produced after the 2020 census.

In the meantime, however, his ability to govern will be hampered by the fact that the people of Virginia resoundingly voted for a Democratic House of Delegates, but the maps were rigged to produce a Republican house.