A panel of federal judges from the Fourth Circuit ordered the state of Virginia to adopt a new map of legislative districts, a decision that could help Democrats in the state seize control of the Virginia House of Delegates after years of Republican dominance.
Experts believe the new map, which was drawn by a University of California-Irvine political science professor after a Fourth Circuit panel found last June that 11 state house districts were racially gerrymandered to dilute the influence of African-American voters, will be friendlier to Democrats.
Republicans in the state house have said they intend to appeal the ruling. Virginia’s Democratic attorney general refused to defend the existing map last year, leaving Republicans to take up the legal slack and producing a question of standing should the case ever reach the US Supreme Court.
A Skewed Map
When Barack Obama won Virginia in 2008, he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture the state’s electoral votes since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide. That election represented the most striking step in the state’s long-term political evolution.
Demographic shifts, especially in the heavily populated northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, have given Democrats a consistent advantage in the commonwealth. The party is ascendant in the state – after the 2018 midterms, Democrats controlled every statewide office in Virginia, both US Senate seats and seven of the state’s 11 congressional seats. In addition, Democrats have won the state in each of the last three presidential elections.
However, this dynamic has not been reflected in the state legislature. Republicans won the governor’s mansion and increased their majority in the House of Delegates in the 2009 elections (like New Jersey, Virginia holds its gubernatorial elections in the odd-numbered year after a presidential election). As in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, Republicans used their fortuitously timed victories to entrench their power through gerrymandering.
Democrats dramatically out-performed expectations in Virginia’s 2017 elections, flipping 15 GOP-held House of Delegates districts. However, the GOP map was just strong enough to allow the party to retain a narrow majority – Democrats won vastly more votes in the house elections that year, but Republicans maintained a 51-49 edge in the house after the election in one district ended in a tie and the GOP candidate’s name was picked out of a bowl.
Specifically, Democrats alleged, Republicans had “packed” African-American voters into a handful of safe Democratic districts in and around Richmond, Hampton Roads and Petersburg. The party sued in federal court, alleging that the GOP’s map represented an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. A panel of federal judges agreed last June, ordering a new map.
The UC-Irvine political scientist, Bernard Grofman, created that map, which re-draws the districts in such a way as to move many African-American voters into districts long dominated by Republicans. Observers expect this to make those districts more competitive. In January a Fourth Circuit panel ordered the state to adopt the map for the 2019 legislative elections.
An Uncertain Political and Legal Future
One of the most affected districts is likely to be the Petersburg-area district currently held by House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican. Cox has been the face of the GOP defense of its map, and he tweeted after the January ruling that Republicans would appeal to the US Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court had already said it would hear an appeal to the original June, 2018 ruling. However, it allowed the lower court to go ahead with drawing a new map. With arguments in the case set for March, a ruling likely won’t come down until May or June. If the Supreme Court rejects the new map, as requested by Virginia Republicans, it could be difficult to draw a new one in time for the November elections.
If the new map stands as drawn, however, Democrats would seem well-positioned to win control of the House of Delegates. Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the lower chamber. All 100 seats will be up for election in November, and observers believe Democrats are favorites to flip at least three and as many as eight GOP-held seats.
However, political winds have shifted in the state since the court accepted the new map. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam is still struggling with the aftermath of a scandal surrounding photos of blackface in his medical school yearbook (Northam has said it is not him in the pictures). Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, a rising star in the Democratic Party, is facing accusations of rape and sexual assault from two women. And Attorney General Mark Herring has admitted he also wore blackface in his youth.
It remains to be seen how these very serious scandals will affect the November elections – while few expect significant numbers of African-Americans in Virginia to vote for Republicans, Democratic candidates could be in trouble if black voters decide to stay home. If this happens, Democrats could find themselves happy they are no longer fighting on a skewed battlefield.