Virginia lawmakers are playing with fire. If they aren’t careful, not only could they burn themselves, they could set the whole place ablaze.
Their first step towards pyromania came on Jan 20, Obama’s inauguration day. The Virginia State Senate is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, although Republicans control the chamber because the Lt. Governor is also Republican and holds the tie-breaking vote. But on inauguration day, one of the Democrats went to Washington to watch the proceedings; he’s a 74 year old Black Civil Rights attorney who wanted to see first-hand the inauguration of a black president. In his absence, the VA GOP announced that that they were considering, held all of 40 minutes of debate on, and then passed (20-19) a bill redrawing the State Senate district maps to be significantly more favorable to Republicans. They had to wait until he was gone because the Lt. Governor, a Republican, declared this was a bad idea–if the vote was a tie, they couldn’t have forced it through as quickly and the LT. Governor might not have agreed to it.
Their second step came just yesterday, when lawmakers in Virginia passed a bill through committee that would divvy up Virginia’s electoral votes based on the winner of the Congressional seats, instead of being winner-take all for the state as a whole. To give you an idea of where things stand, Obama won Virginia by about 150,000 votes, taking their 13 Electoral Votes in the 2012 elections. Virginia has 11 Congressional districts; in 2012, despite the fact that roughly equal numbers of Virginians voted for Republicans and Democrats for the US House of Representatives, the Republicans controlled 9 of those seats. Under the new proposal, the Romney would have won 9 electoral votes and Obama 2 for how well they did in their respective House districts, and then Obama would have won 2 more (representing the two Senators) for winning the overall vote total for the state. The Virginia proposal still has a ways to go before it becomes law, although the state GOP leadership is tentatively behind it. Similar proposals are being considered, by the way, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan–all Blue or Battleground states that currently have Republican legislatures.
Why are these bills dangerous?
1) These laws are short-sighted. They benefit the GOP now, because the GOP did well in the 2010 election–and therefore the GOP was in power the last time that the district maps were redrawn in all the states after the last census. Why did the GOP do well in 2010? 1) Anger at Obama because the economy was bad and not improving very fast, and 2) GOP voters are (generally speaking) fewer but more resilient–that is, their are less of them, but they are more likely to vote in off-year and small elections. The next census happens in 2020. 2020 is a presidential election year–when Democratic turnout will likely be much higher than it was in 2010. And by 2020 people will have moved; the gerrymandered maps made after 2010 will be less accurate than they are right now.
In other words, just because the GOP got to draw the maps in 2010, controls the state legislatures, and is in good position to change the redistricting rules to their own advantage today, doesn’t mean that they will be in the same position in a decade. Ten years from now, they may very well be on the losing side of the laws that they are passing today. Rules stay the same; the people in power change. Manipulating the rules to maintain or increase your power is likely to come back to bite you.
2) These laws are procedurally unjust. The whole point of them is to get around the fact that more voters are voting for the other guy’s candidates than are voting for your candidates. So rather than run better candidates or market those candidates better, the Virginian GOP has decided that it’s okay just to change the rules to make sure that the GOP wins anyway. It’s inherently undemocratic–only slightly better than passing a law saying that “only Republican candidates are allowed to win the election.” China and Iran have elections too–it’s the fact that the elections are meaningful that makes the countries democratic. The more that political parties change the rules to manipulate election results to ensure that their guy wins despite the results of elections, the less democratic we become.
Neither of these gerrymandering fiascos have become law yet. Hopefully, neither of them will. But whether you are a Democrat or Republican it’s important that we recognize a power-grab when we see one: and taken together, these laws are about as blatant a power-grab as you are likely to see.