Tuesday night’s elections were a watershed for Democrats in Virginia. By the end of the night, not only had Democrats won control of both houses of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time in a generation, they had done so without losing a single seat picked up in the state’s wave election of 2017.
It’s a huge turnabout from 2013, when Republicans won a supermajority in the House of Delegates and held an 8 to 3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation. Both of those outsized majorities, in an otherwise quintessential battleground state, were due in large part to racially gerrymandered maps that were later struck down by federal courts.
And with Democrats in control of the governor’s mansion as well, there has already been early buzz about how they will use their new trifecta to do things like pass big voting reforms such as automatic voter registration. But paradoxically, the election has also created a big potential opportunity for Democrats to be unprincipled on redistricting reform.
Earlier this year, the Virginia legislature almost unanimously passed a constitutional amendment to create a 16-member advisory commission to draw legislative and congressional maps. But the amendment still needs to be passed a second time by the incoming legislature before it goes before voters in November 2020 for approval. The question now is whether Democrats, having the unexpected chance to draw maps in 2021 without GOP involvement, will remain as committed to reform as they were when government control was divided.
There are good reasons why they should be. Most importantly, the amendment would create protections for communities of color and require that maps be approved by the commission with supermajority bipartisan support. That would be a big win for voters in a state where this decade, African-American voters were cynically packed into oddly shaped districts in order to engineer political advantages for white Republicans. Democrats, likewise, could face future temptation to use minority voters either to gerrymander an outsized advantage or to give incumbents of their party super-safe seats.
Indeed, this decade’s racial gerrymanders were so effective that it took an unprecedented wave election in 2017 to make a meaningful dent in Republicans’ political advantage, and it has taken the better part of the decade — and several trips to the U.S. Supreme Court — to secure new fairer maps.
The proposed constitutional amendment, likewise, would not cut the legislature out of the process. Maps passed by the advisory commission would still need to be passed by both houses of the Virginia legislature to go into effect. No amendments would be permitted, but if either house rejects a map, the commission would get a second chance to craft a map for the legislature’s consideration. If that map also fails, map-drawing responsibility would fall to the Virginia Supreme Court, with likely assistance from a court-appointed “special master.”
Redistricting reform is also hugely popular with Virginia voters, with nearly three in four saying that redistricting should be made independent from backroom party politics. And though Virginia has been trending Democratic in recent years, the state remains more or less evenly divided between the parties, meaning that the advantage currently enjoyed by Democrats may be more temporary than it may seem the morning after sweeping electoral wins.
But, having been the victims of gerrymandering this decade, Democrats now face the proverbial angel on one shoulder and devil on the other. President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder have made ending gerrymandering a priority. They and Virginia voters should put pressure on Democrats to do what’s right, not what’s politically expedient in the short-term.