On Tuesday, a Richmond circuit court judge allowed a lawsuit to proceed to trial against Virginia’s state legislative district maps, ruling against the Republican legislators who had moved to dismiss the case. The redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021 is challenging 11 state Senate and House districts drawn in 2011 as violations of the state constitution’s requirement that districts be compact. If the court strikes down these districts, many more surrounding ones would also likely have to be redrawn.
This case still has to go to trial, meaning even a successful result for the plaintiffs might not come in time to affect this November’s House elections, while the Senate isn’t up until 2019 anyway. Furthermore, Virginia’s conservative-leaning state Supreme Court could ultimately overturn a ruling that is unfavorable to Republicans. However, if a court strikes down the districts in question and orders legislators to draw new ones, Democrats could gain significantly.
The Republican-controlled legislature currently lacks the votes to override Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s vetoes, and this situation could persist following the 2017 elections if Democrats win the race to succeed McAuliffe. After a federal court struck down Virginia’s congressional map in an unrelated racial gerrymandering case in 2015, the two parties couldn’t reach a compromise, so the court drew its own plan for the affected districts. Such a result could see dramatically more favorable maps for Democrats than if Republicans got another chance to draw new gerrymanders.
Republicans controlled the governor’s office and House during 2011’s redistricting, while Democrats narrowly held the Senate. The two parties eventually reached a compromise where they approved an aggressive Republican gerrymander of the House and a modest Democratic gerrymander of the Senate. The current maps saw Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe lose 56 of 100 districts even when he prevailed statewide by 2.5 points in 2013, while the governor won just 20 of the 40 Senate seats.
The House map worked like a well-oiled machine, as shown on the map at the top of this post (see here for a larger version). Republicans won roughly two-thirds of the seats in all three elections since 2011, even though they haven’t won a single statewide race since 2009. However, the GOP narrowly won control of the Senate in 2011 and 2015 despite the map ostensibly being drawn to favor Democrats.
Should the court invalidate both maps, House Democrats could have much more to gain than Senate Democrats might expect to lose. New court-drawn maps in 2017 or 2019 wouldn’t automatically hand Democrats control of the legislature, but it could at least put the possibility of majorities on the table.
An unrelated federal lawsuit against Virginia’s state House districts could see the United States Supreme Court strike down that map as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in the next few months, meaning we might see a new map regardless of how this separate state trial over compactness turns out.