David Toscano, the minority leader in the Virginia House, did the math and didn’t like the results.
By Maura Mazurowski and Mary Lee Clark for Capital News Service
“All five statewide offices are held by Democrats, and the presidency has been won by Democrats in Virginia for the last three cycles,” he said. “Yet 66 percent of the House of Delegates are Republicans.”
The Democrats do better in the Virginia Senate, where they are outnumbered just 21-19 by Republicans. Almost as lopsided as the state House of Delegates is Virginia’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representative: It has seven Republicans and four Democrats.
Toscano and other Democrats blame that imbalance on gerrymandering – the drawing of political districts to favor the party in power.
“We face a real uphill struggle, and it shows in the legislation that is getting defeated as well as the legislation that they are getting passed,” Toscano said.
Last week, for example, the General Assembly marked “crossover day” – the deadline for bills to pass their chamber of origin or be declared dead for the legislative session. Of bills sponsored by Republican delegates, 59 percent have won House approval and are still alive, according to a Capital News Service analysis of data from the Legislative Information Service. Of bills sponsored by Democratic delegates, just 25 percent survived crossover.
However, many legislators dispute the notion that unfair redistricting practices have disadvantaged Democrats and ensured Republican legislative dominance.
“It has nothing to do with gerrymandering. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Jeff Ryer, communications director for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus. He said the Republican majority in the General Assembly simply reflects where people live: Republicans tend to live in rural areas while Democrats tend to cluster in more densely populated areas, such as Tidewater and Northern Virginia.
Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, agrees. In an op-ed this month in the Richmond-Times Dispatch, he discussed what Democrats see as evidence of manipulated districts: “A state in which Republicans have lost seven statewide races in a row has a majority Republican congressional delegation and legislature.”
McDougle wrote, “That is not the result of gerrymandering, but an easy to understand consequence of Democrat voters living in communities surrounded by other Democrat voters.” In other words, he explained, “Democrat voters often reside in clusters, living in localities that vote overwhelmingly for Democrat candidates.”
Last fall’s presidential election was a case in point, McDougle said. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won only 40 of Virginia’s 133 localities. But by winning the most populous localities, often by “staggeringly large” margins, Clinton captured the statewide vote over Republican Donald Trump.
However, Bill Oglesby, an assistant professor in VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, says gerrymandering explains why Democrats have so little power in the General Assembly.
“Even a conservative editorial page like the Richmond-Times Dispatch has said in a state that votes blue statewide on a consistent basis, there’s no justification for having two-thirds of the House be Republican,” said Oglesby, who recently directed and produced a PBS documentary titled “GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy on Its Head.”
John Aughenbaugh, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said both Democrats and Republicans have used gerrymandering, depending on which party is in the majority when political lines are redrawn every 10 years.
“In Virginia, like a majority of the states in the country, the state legislature controls the redistricting process after every census is taken,” Aughenbaugh said. “It puts a heavy premium on which political party is actually in control of the General Assembly after the census results come out.”
When the Democrats controlled the General Assembly, they drew the lines to benefit their party, Aughenbaugh said. He said no one is innocent, but it is a problem that must be fixed.
“Most political scientists would like to see greater competitive races, whether we are talking about state legislative seats or House of Representatives,” Aughenbaugh said. “We would like to see greater competition.”
The lack of competition is evident in statistics compiled by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. When the 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates were up for election two years ago, 61 of the races were uncontested – with just one name on the ballot.
Despite being in the minority in the House and Senate, Democratic legislators have an ace up their sleeve. They can play it when Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoes legislation, as he has done to 71 Republican-supported bills since taking office in 2014.
Republicans need a two-thirds majority in both chambers – 67 votes in the House and 27 in the Senate – to override a veto. They’ve never been able to muster that. As a result, not one of McAuliffe’s vetoes has been overturned.
But Democrats’ ultimate goal is to change the way political districts are drawn.
At the start of the legislative session, legislators – including some Republicans – introduced 13 bills and proposed constitutional amendments intended to take the politics out of redistricting. All of the proposals originating in the House died in the House Privileges and Elections Committee.
But three redistricting proposals won approval in the Senate and have been sent to the House for consideration:
- SJ 290 is a proposed constitutional amendment that states, “No electoral district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring any political party, incumbent legislator or member of Congress, or other individual or entity.” It is sponsored by Sens. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester, and Janet Howell, D-Reston.
- SJ 231, another constitutional amendment, would create an independent commission to redraw legislative and congressional districts after each census. It is sponsored by a group of Republicans and Democrats.
- SB 846, sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, would require Virginia to use an independent commission if a court declares a legislative or congressional district unlawful or unconstitutional.
All of those measures have been assigned to the House Privileges and Elections Committee, the House graveyard for its own bills that would have changed redistricting.