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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.

(Photo: Think­stock)