A Supreme Court ruling in a Virginia gerrymandering case could have a major impact on Virginia’s political landscape. 11 of Virginia’s House of Delegates districts were struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in March, 2017 after the court found that those districts had been racially gerrymandered to dilute the voting power of African American voters.
Now, Republican legislators, including Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox, are appealing to the Supreme Court once again, making the argument that since the 2011 district map was approved by a bipartisan majority in 2011, it should not be redrawn until its regularly scheduled revision in 2021.
Republicans currently control Virginia’s House of Delegates by a razor thin margin of 51-49, but the redistricting process could shift the balance of power in favor of the Democratic party. The 11 districts that are being redrawn are primarily located in eastern Virginia, between Richmond and Hampton Roads, and touch an additional 20 districts that will be impacted by the redistricting process.
The state’s legislature and governor were given an opportunity to redraw the map by October 30, 2018, but couldn’t agree on new boundaries for the districts. The redistricting process has been passed to a special master, Bernard Grofman, who will have the final say in the mapping process.
Grofman redrew several of Virginia’s House of Representatives districts in 2015 after they were found to have violated racial gerrymandering laws. The new map led to the creation of a Democratic-leaning seat outside of Richmond that elected Donald McEachin in 2016.
Republican politicians oversaw the redistricting process in Virginia in 2011 when they had a significant majority in the both the House and Senate, and they’ve been in control of the general assembly ever since. Meanwhile, a majority of Virginians have voted for Democratic candidates in all presidential, U.S. Senate, and gubernatorial elections since 2012.
Brian Cannon, executive director of redistricting advocacy group OneVirginia2021, said that the Republicans who oversaw the 2011 redistricting process acted in a self-serving manner that has allowed them to retain a majority in the general assembly.
“The worst case scenario for redrawing districts is to let politicians do it because, not only are they the ones who got us into this mess in the first place, but they’re the most self interested people in the whole universe to draw these districts,” Cannon said.
Sam Wang, director of Princeton Gerrymandering Project, said that the Republican party’s racial gerrymandering served two interests: to reduce the power of African Americans by giving them very few districts, and to reduce the number of Democratically-held districts in the state.
“The Virginia state legislature has one of the strongest gerrymanders, from the partisan standpoint, in the country,” Wang said. “This redraw will level the playing field, not only for African Americans but for the two major parties, so that’s what’s at stake here.”
As part of Virginia Republicans’ current appeal to the Supreme Court, Cox has proposed that Virginia’s 2019 primaries be moved three months later, from June 10 to September 10, in order to give the Supreme Court time to release a ruling that is expected in May 2019. Cox has also argued that Grofman’s map shouldn’t be released until after the Supreme Court rules, since the court could conceivably rule in his and the Republicans’ favor.
The outcome of the 2019 Virginia state elections will likely determine which party will oversee the state redistricting process in 2021. Ben Williams, legal analyst for Princeton Gerrymandering Project, said that a shift in the balance of power won’t eliminate the possibility of a partisan gerrymander in 2021.
“Anytime that a single political party has control over redistricting, there’s a chance that districting will end up favoring that party,” Williams said. “I think that from a good government standpoint, it will lead to greater stability and greater competition if there are routes found that make redistricting either independent, non-partisan or bipartisan.”
Additional reporting by Marilyn Drew Necci; Image by Stephen Wolf, via DailyKos