Virginia Rated Worst State for Partisan Gerrymandering

By DJ RippertThey’ll be back (in office forever).

The USC Schwarzennegger Institute released a report finding that Virginia had the highest degree of partisan gerrymandering among all U.S. states. The report analyzed the “statewide popular vote in 2017 or 2018 state legislative elections and the partisan composition of the state legislative chambers in 2019.” While other studies draw somewhat different results, Virginia is often near the top of the list of “most gerrymandered states.” In mid-2019 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lawsuit by Virginia voters challenging Virginia’s voting districts on racial grounds.

As the USC report states, “Self-interested legislators who seek reelection have long attempted to draw their own districts to protect their personal reelection chances and to improve the electoral odds of their political party.” Repeating for emphasis, Virginia is not only one of many states with extreme gerrymandering, it is rated by this study as the most extreme case of partisan gerrymandering. This is no accident. It is the result of deliberate actions by members of our General Assembly hailing from both parties.

Partisan gerrymandering is a form of voter suppression and disenfranchisement. It should not be allowed and Virginia should certainly never be the worst offender. Beyond that, the Virginia Constitution states, “Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.” A state does not become the worst example of partisan gerrymandering in the United States by using contiguous and compact districts. Once again our General Assembly’s actions show that they believe laws are for the little people and not for themselves.

Non-competitive state legislative elections. Gerrymandering helps create politicians for life. As Jeff Thomas points out in his excellent book, The Virginia Way, Democracy and Power after 2016, “For the first time in the long history of the state, in November 2015, every politician who ran for reelection won, an incredible 122 out of 122.” This is no coincidence. It is partially the result of active, intentional partisan gerrymandering by our General Assembly. However, Virginia’s non-competitive elections are caused by more than partisan gerrymandering. There are other overt actions implemented by the Virginia Constitution or in Virginia law that further reduce the competitiveness of our elections. To wit, here are some of the main culprits:

  • Unlimited campaign contributions – Vast oceans of money from special interests, rent seekers and crony capitalists pour into the coffers of Virginia politicians as campaign contributions. As one of only five states to allow unlimited campaign contributions Virginia effectively requires a massive fundraising program to credibly run for office. These days, it even costs a lot to lose. Read more here.
  • No term limits for state legislators – Virginia is the only state in the Union where a sitting governor cannot run for a second term. Yet this fascination with term limits at the top finds no corollary among the legislative class. There are no term limits for delegates or senators in Virginia. Other states have taken steps to avoid “politicians for life.” In 15 states legislators are subject to term limits.
  • Off-year and off-off year elections – Virginia is one of only five states to hold elections on odd-numbered years. The others are Mississippi, Kentucky, New Jersey and Louisiana. This is expensive. Kentucky officials estimate that running odd year elections adds $15.4 million to the cost of elections over a four year cycle. Odd-year elections also mean lower voter turnout. Just 29% of Virginians cast their ballots in 2015 compared with 72% in the presidential election the following year. More details here. Intentionally scheduling elections to ensure low turnout is just another form of disenfranchisement. While some will blame potential voters for not voting, the money-wasting approach to odd year elections is no different than limiting the number of polling places in a populous area to discourage potential voters through inconvenience.


There have been recent efforts in Virginia to amend the state constitution in order to block (or at least reduce) partisan gerrymandering. Unsurprisingly, the recent push for independent district setting has come from Virginia Republicans as they have seen their electoral margins shrink and then go negative. Will the Democrats go along? The road to a constitutional amendment in Virginia is a long one. Any amendment to the Constitution must first be passed by a majority in each of the two legislative houses.The proposed amendment must then be held over for consideration by the succeeding elected legislature, where it must again be passed by a majority in each house. The amendment then goes on the general ballot and becomes enacted into the Constitution if approved by a majority of the voters. Such a move is afoot in Virginia. Will the question of an “independent” redistricting amendment be on the ballot for Virginians on Nov 3, 2020? I’ll leave the analysis of that question to Steve Haner and others who are actively monitoring this year’s General Assembly session.

Rip’s Wrap. Today’s Virginia Way is a lingering extension of the Byrd Machine. The racism is largely gone but the desire of a very few to control Virginia politics through un-democratic laws remains. This un-democratic control is multi-dimensional. As described, it’s not just gerrymandering but gerrymandering, unlimited campaign contributions, a lack of term limits and odd year elections. Our new Democratic majority has the opportunity to demonstrate that it stands for a more democratic, more transparent, more fair Virginia. Will Democrats take the first big step by getting the independent redistricting amendment on the ballot this November? Or will they prove that no matter how much time passes in Virginia “Byrds of a feather continue to flock together”?

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23 responses to “Virginia Rated Worst State for Partisan Gerrymandering”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    The timing on the USC report is quite obvious (and suspect), with the key votes pending on the proposed state constitutional amendment setting up a commission to draw districts. Will the Democrats now reverse course and kill that idea, having voted for it last year? The Great Carnac has a prediction….

    1. djrippert Avatar

      I’m not sure the report was specifically targeted at Virginia, although Virginia was certainly part of the impetus. The other members of the dirty Top 5 states have various proposals on the table too.

      Hopefully, Carnac will reveal his prediction in a soon to be published column.

      Quick question – can Northam veto a proposed constitutional amendment like any other legislation?

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        No. It goes straight from the GA to the ballot.

      2. Only if passed twice.

  2. That was easy. You didn’t mention the “plantation class” or “descendants of Pocahontas” one time — and you still make a powerful argument! You are right to say that the current system is a lingering extension of the Byrd machine, which was designed to control efflorescences of populism. I like the “Byrds of a feather” coinage.

    Ending gerrymandering, capping campaign limits, and imposing term limits are conceptually easy steps to take (though perhaps not so easy politically). How ever would Virginia get itself onto a even-election year track, though? Give all incumbents an extra freebie year to serve, or deduct a year from their terms?

    1. djrippert Avatar

      In a later post I will draw a straight line for you from Pocahontas to Dick Saslaw explaining how the latter could never have come to power without the former.

    2. I vote for deducting a year from their terms.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Good article DJ!

    ANY “commission” that is comprised of members who were appointed by General Assembly folks is illicit from the get go in my view.

    I’ll take computer-drawn maps certified by referendum – any day of the week. My second choice is Supreme Court Justices.

    I don’t trust any process where those whose self-interests are involved – appoint the folks who will decide on maps that directly affect the folks who appointed them.

    No one should. I cannot understand why ANYONE would support such a process..

    RoVa rule of Virginia is coming to an end – and it should.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Iowa has an interesting approach which should be considered in Virginia.

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    They love the off-year elections! You can run for federal office without having to surrender your state gig. That ain’t changing. And I can’t remember if the goal was to keep him out or ensure he was in, but didn’t the first Virginia gerrymander involve Little Jimmy Madison? Can’t blame Byrd for that one, not even DJ….

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Gerrymandering goes way back (although I’ll wager that some early member of the plantation elite introduced it to Virginia). The question is why it hasn’t been addressed in Virginia despite constitutional wording that seems to express a clear intent against gerrymandering.

    2. I guess you’d have to blame Patrick Henry; but it means Virginia has been gerrymandering since before it was even called gerrymandering.

      Once again, Virginia leads the way…

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think one could argue different approaches to re-districting before computers.

    And one could still argue that programmers could be biased.

    but if you have 3 different programmers all writing a program where they do not know either GOP/DEM side – just the geography and population demographics, it’s going to be much harder to argue for human intervention.

    it’s way past time to keep the fingers of those who are affected by redistricting out of the process. It can be done and it should be done and we need to stop pretending it cannot.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      It could easily be done by computer, as you advocate, if one uses only geography (whatever that means) and population. However, there are other legitimate factors that should be considered and much harder to program, such as county and city boundaries, precinct boundaries, and communities of interest (the most nebulous of all, but important).

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Computers can work off of boundaries as well as communities of interest – you just have rules for how to handle them and the first rule would be to try to have concomitant or congruent (?) boundaries.

        i.e. can boundaries be drawn that serve both US and State Congressional and General Assembly boundaries.

        Can a collection of counties be equal to a GA district and a larger collection be equal to a Congressional district? Computers can do this but when you throw in Communities of interest, computers need a tiebreaker rule – i.e. which do you want if push comes to shove.

        I don’t think computers can fix all the boundary issues but I think they however they end up drawing – it will have no relation to gerrymandering – the distortions will be random.

        The problem with the boundaries is that there are many. They are:

        boundaries for US Congressional districts
        boundaries for Va Senate districts
        boundaries for Va House districts
        boundaries for county precincts for BOS
        (not sure about school districts)
        there are others – like Planning district soil and water districts.

        So I don’t think computer drawn maps will be perfect in terms of boundaries and communities of interest but the lack of fidelity won’t be purposeful human manipulations to achieve R or D desires.

        The process can be for the computers to draw several options and for voters to pick the one they like – warts and all.

        Give UVA and Tech the job, or Cal Tech or MIT and let them, independently develop maps per the requirements, then when they’re done , compare them, pick one and move forward.

        The ” let’s appoint a commission” folks are still trying to influence and I don’t trust them for a minute, they’d be appointing “proxies”.

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          No, a collection of counties cannot usually equal a house district. There will either be too many people in that collection or too few. The result is that you will have either to pick up some people from an adjoining county or give up some people to an adjoining house district. From which adjoining county do you pick up enough extra people or to which adjoining district do you give up people? Do you pick up people from just one adjoining county or more than one? And the questions go on. And the answers may be different for different areas of the state. I do not see how you could program that into a computer.

          Also, who writes the rules for the computer to use? And when the various academics have produced their maps, who does the comparing and picks one?

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            Any rule a human would create and use, can be programmed.

            on the split districts – for instance, there are MSAs that cross city/county boundaries and associating geography by MSA might be one approach.

            In terms of who programs – use more than one academic source, pick some from outside the state AND validate the final product by looking at demographics and other metrics to insure none are lopsided. Rules like this can be built into the software also.

            In terms of who picks – I have no problem with an appointed commission who has no ability to change anything. Present them with 3 or 4 computer-drawn options, pick one and move on. Or the SCOVA. But again, no “picker” can change anything. Either vote yea or nay.

            Just get the partisans out of the task of drawing the maps.

      2. So, LG, are you in favor of the proposed VA constitutional amendment to set up a bi-partisan committee to draw boundaries, or not? Beats a computer, IMHO.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          @Acbar – Not in favor. Pretty sure the people the “bi-partisans” pick will reflect the pickers politics.

          I’m opposed to ANY elected or past elected people being anywhere near the process. I’m opposed to ANYONE who is a known partisan from being involved.

          1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
            Dick Hall-Sizemore

            It is the one up for consideration now, or wait another ten years.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Let me say this up front: I do not deny that the House and Senate districts were products of gerrymandering. Anyone can look at the district boundaries and tell that. Usually, the first rule of drawing districts was to protect the incumbents of the party in power. Then, the aim was to hurt the other party as much as possible. All while making sure that the federal rules on minority representation were complied with.

    With that out of the way, I take serious issue with the USC report. The ranking is based on those states that had minority rule, defined as the party getting a minority of the statewide vote ending up with a majority of the seats in the legislature. Something as complex as representation cannot be adequately measured with the use of one factor. For example, if one party had a lot of popular incumbents, it is likely those incumbents would have not had challengers, thereby driving down the turnout in those districts and, hence, that party’s share of the overall votes cast. In Virginia, Republicans are dominant in rural districts and, traditionally, incumbents have not had challengers in rural districts, whatever the party of the incumbent. On the other hand, there have been more challenges in urban areas and, hence, more turnout.

    Even if one accepts the USC methodology, I disagree with their conclusion that Virginia was the most gerrymandered state. The authors of the study ranked the states by the percentage of the popular vote that the minority party received. Virginia’s was the lowest. However, it would seem that a better measure of the degree of gerrymandering would be the difference between the minority’s share of the popular vote and its share of the legislative seats. Virginia’s minority party got 44.5% of the popular vote and 51% of the seats, a difference or gap of 6.5 percentage points. On the other hand, in Wisconsin, the minority party got 44.7% of the popular vote (only 0.2 percentage points more than in Virginia), but won 64.6% of the legislative seats, a gap of 19.9 percentage points. Clearly, the gerrymandering in favor of the minority party in Wisconsin was much more egregious than in Virginia. In fact, Virginia’s gap was also less than the one for Pennsylvania. Using that approach, Virginia was the third worst, still not good, but at least not the worst.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      That’s a decent analysis Dick. How would YOU change it?

      I would add that for the metrics you cite – you could code that into software so that it would not allow the drawing of districts that resulted in a mismatch between demographic percentage and electoral result percentages.

      You would test and verify such software by feeding it different percentage test data to see the final drawn districts.

      You could make that a requirement – that any drawn maps would have to preserve/maintain voter/results conformity.

      I would assert that such fidelty might even trump the vague concept of communities of interest failing any more precise method of defining what communities of interest actually are or are not.

      The point here is that there is a way to go about this by shutting off partisan influences as much as possible and requiring the final product to be as free as possible from partisan influences.

      You cannot do that by having GA folks and their party allies and supporters involved in map drawing. It’s a fail from the start. It will always boil down to whatever side was the better at getting “their guys” on the redistricting panel.

  7. The only opponents of gerrymandering are those out of power. Allowing a commission to draw the districts takes the power further away from the voters. Those persons elected by the voters represent the wishes of the voters, therefore they should be in charge of redistricting. As flawed as that might be, it still is more closely representative of the wishes of the voters than a sterile, so-called bipartisan commission. A commission composed of appointees, many of which are political hacks or privileged citizens, will only push the process further from the voters. I am certain the Democrats in the General Assembly are having second thoughts about this proposed Commission and constitutional amendment now that they have power.

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