Gerrymandering Lessons from Virginia's Elections

Even a tsunami election of unprecedented proportions wasn’t enough to overcome one of the most biased legislative maps of the decade.

November 9, 2017

On Tuesday morning, Republicans held a 66-34 majority in the Virginia House of Delegates. By dawn on Wednesday morning, as election results trickled in, they were staring at what looked to be a 50-50 split when the next legislature convenes in January.

That led some pundits to quickly suggest that Democrats needed to spend less time worrying about gerrymandering and more time going out and simply winning elections.

But the actual lessons of Tuesday night are quite a bit more complex – with caution flags for both Republicans and Democrats.

For one thing, the 2017 elections were a huge wave election for Democrats – by far the best election cycle they’ve enjoyed this decade in Virginia. Yet despite winning the vote in delegate races by nine percentage points (53% to 44%), Democrats will get at best to parity and only then if all four of the remaining uncalled races go their way.

In short, even a tsunami election of unprecedented proportions wasn’t enough to overcome one of the most biased legislative maps of the decade. That’s a testament to exactly how pernicious and durable this decade’s gerrymanders are. And it’s an ominous warning sign to any Democrats who may be counting on electoral politics in 2018 and 2020 to return them to power in other states or in the U.S. House.

But Tuesday’s election results also were a red flag for Republicans because they were a stark reminder of the calculated bet that lies at the heart of extreme gerrymandering. In extreme gerrymandering, the key is to a successful gerrymander is to draw a large number of districts that your party wins comparatively narrowly instead of a smaller number of districts that your party wins by overwhelming margins. By doing so, you maximize the number of seats your party wins.

However, extreme gerrymandering also gambles that there won’t be an extraordinary wave of the sort that we saw this week in Virginia. If that gamble proves wrong, the carefully engineered districts that might hold for your party in the normal ebb and flow of politics suddenly become vulnerable. And after Tuesday night, Republicans have to be wondering whether 2018 and 2020 portend to be the political equivalent of a 500-year or even 1000-year flood.

Uncertainty for the political parties, though, could be good news for voters. Much of opposition to redistricting reform in states like Virginia has been premised on the belief that a particular party is certain to be in control. By upending that certainty, Tuesday night’s election results may open the door for a rethink.

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