Virginia Democrats’ Chance to Gerrymander

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S1: I have one question for you. Do you like the color blue.

S2: This is what Richmond Virginia sounded like around 10:00 at night on election day. After the votes had rolled in.

S1: I’m here to officially declare today November the 5th 2019 that Virginia is officially blue. Congratulations.

S2: The governor Ralph Northam. He is celebrating loudly. Democrats had just taken the state House and the state Senate.

S3: Oh what a great night.

S4: The next day a local paper would actually call this victory a blue suit Nami Dave Daley was watching these returns come in he says to really understand what happened in Virginia that night you need to get how this Blue Wave felt somehow both inevitable and hard won at the same time.

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S5: Virginia has now really changed over the course of the last decade. It has voted for the Democrat for president in every election since 2008. It has elected Democratic governors for the last decade so this was really the last step in the process for Virginia Democrats gaining control of the state legislature has been brutal. If you go back to the 2017 election Democrats won two hundred thousand more votes for the House of Delegates statewide than Republican candidates. And yet that election ended up in a tie.

S6: This tie wasn’t a mistake.

S7: It was by design because all those votes they were locked up inside district maps that had been gerrymandered by Republicans I mean that gerrymandering seems like it’s this kind of you know wonky subject that kind of puts people to sleep reminds you of you know civics class in ninth grade and how bored you were. But when it is the reason that your state is controlled by the party that wins hundreds of thousands of fewer votes I think that is a real wakeup call. And you know it shows people that these maps really really matter.

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S6: Now the Democrats are in charge. It does raise this question of what are they going to do. It’s a great question and in many ways it’s it’s the key question that we’ll be watching imagine you were just elected to the Virginia state house. Now it’s your job to draw those district maps are Democrats going to play hardball and do the same thing back to Republicans. Or are they going to try and take the higher ground today on the show. What comes after a blue tsunami. Virginia’s Democratic representatives spent a decade feeling locked out by Republican maps. Now that they’re in charge are they going to run things any differently. A Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

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S8: Part of what makes Virginia so interesting to Dave Daley is that at the same time the state started to go blue. It was in the middle of a debate about redistricting a few years back a court declared the state’s maps unconstitutional because they were racially gerrymandered and in the years since the Virginia legislature has also tried to take action against partisan gerrymandering.

S9: There has been a bipartisan reform movement on gerrymandering in Virginia that has been gaining momentum over the last several years. And I think what really helped gain momentum is that Republicans and Democrats had no idea who would be in charge of the map making process in 2021.

S4: Nothing brings everyone to the table like a good dose of fear.

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S10: There was a good and healthy dose of fear in Virginia.

S8: But fixing the way these maps get made it can take years requires an amendment to the state constitution.

S11: Virginia is halfway towards reform. Earlier this year back in February the State Legislature agreed on a compromise on redistricting that they would establish a 16 person commission that includes eight members of the legislature and eight citizens. You would have a process that was more transparent. There would be these supermajority provisions put into place so that neither side could jam a map down the throats of the other side and nobody thinks it’s a perfect compromise. But in Virginia for a constitutional amendment to be enacted it has to clear the state legislature two years in a row using the exact same language before it goes to the people.

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S4: Can I just say that is so deliciously complicated. You can’t just pass something through the legislature. You have to pass it two years in a row. It’s it’s just it’s impressive.

S11: It really is. And on top of that there is no time left here to spare. Ahead of the 20 21 redistricting so it passes in 2019. It has to pass again in 2020 and then it has to be approved by voters in November of 2020 because otherwise in February and March. Redistricting is about to start again for the next decade set of lines so that sets up this question are Democrats going to agree to this. A bipartisan compromise from the previous legislature. Or will a Democratic controlled legislature want to completely change this around and take the opportunity to enact a set of lines that advantage themselves over the next decade. The question is whether they will use their power to advance good government reforms or whether they will use that power to entrench themselves and to emphasize here.

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S4: Democrats in Virginia really hold all of the cards they hold the governorship they hold both houses of the state house and so they really have dealer’s choice here and you’re beginning to hear prominent Democrats come out and begin to say you know we made that compromise last year but you know it’s problematic it’s problematic like the former governor Terry McAuliffe. He went on public radio and basically said yeah I have concerns about this compromise we’ve made.

S11: And Terry McAuliffe has spent the last five years complaining about Republican gerrymandering nationwide and now all of a sudden that Democrats have complete power in Virginia. You hear him beginning to whistle a little bit of a different song and that I think is what concerns a lot of people.

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S12: Now if Democrats ram through a map that favors themselves in Virginia they will hand the other side the ammunition to say that when Democrats complain about maps they’re only complaining because it hurts them politically in those states but the concerns that are being raised by some Democrats they do seem legitimate.

S4: I wonder if we can we can tick off some of the things that legislators and democratic advocates are talking about when they talk about the problems with this compromise they made with Republicans last year.

S13: Sure there is a significant portion of the Legislative Black Caucus in Virginia that is concerned about representation on this commission. It is a 16 person commission. It involves eight legislators and eight members of the public. And they would like some kind of assurances with regard to minority representation. This seems entirely fair right. I mean this is a state in which the Democratic governor was involved in a blackface scandal not that long ago. If you are a black Democrat in Virginia it is entirely within your rights to feel mistrustful of white Democrats in the state.

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S4: You spoke to some black legislators in particular about how they were feeling now that Democrats are firmly in control of Virginia and whether they really want to pass this again. What did they tell you.

S14: There’s a lot of passion and not a lot of agreement. There are some members of the Black Caucus who believe in this compromise believe in redistricting reform and want to see it through. There are others who say absolutely no way that there is not any guarantees of minority representation on this commission and they say that they simply don’t trust a compromise that that many Republicans in Virginia where we’re willing to agree to there’s a powerful voices inside this black caucus that say it’s not enough to ensure minority protection in enabling legislation. It needs to be in the language of the amendment itself.

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S8: Dave says for many black legislators part of the problem is that historically gerrymandered maps have been a way for them to gain representation because when the Democrats were the dominant party in the South back in the 80s the white leadership wasn’t especially interested in sharing power. But Republicans were to a certain extent.

S10: What happened is Republican organizations go to civil rights groups and they say we will buy you the computers and the software package and the mapping information you need to draw districts that might give you a chance of winning seats. And this works across the south. You begin to see finally a levels of black representation in many states that approach a basic equity. What you also see and what Republicans well understood is that these majority minority seats by creating districts with sufficient a black population as to elect a member of color. It meant that you were essentially packing many many many Democratic voters into as few districts as possible. And this was going to give Republicans an advantage in all of the surrounding seats.

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S4: So now as Virginia tries to decide how to move forward what to do about these maps whether to go this moderate direction and they’re getting a lot of pushback from people of color in their party. I wonder how much this history it’s sort of haunting everyone on all sides because they know what’s at stake.

S15: I think you’re right.

S16: I think that it is absolutely haunting everybody. There is a lot of mistrust on all sides.

S17: I think what the black lawmakers in Virginia want to guarantee themselves is a seat at the table when these maps are being drawn and they look at this compromise and this constitutional amendment and they don’t necessarily see that guarantee. And when you are a politician who doesn’t have a seat at the table when maps are being drawn when you are a community that doesn’t have a seat at the table it means you are extraordinarily vulnerable to the kinds of maps that those people who are involved in the process decide to give you. So if you are a black Democrat in Virginia you have to really. Have an awful lot of faith if you are willing to accept a process that doesn’t guarantee you.

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S8: A seat at the table. It was interesting you spoke to the author of a pretty aggressive manifesto called It’s Time to fight dirty about what the Democrats should do here whether they should dig in and fight for something better or agree to this compromise. What did he tell you.

S16: I was actually really surprised by his answer. I expected that the author of It’s time to fight dirty was going to tell me that Democrats should rip this compromise up draw the most aggressive gerrymander they possibly can and just laugh at the Republicans for the next 10 years the same way that Republicans have enjoyed the spoils of their 2010 gerrymander. That was not in fact what David Farris told me. And I think he makes a lot of sense. What he argues is that Virginia is trending so blue that any aggressive partisan gerrymander that Democrats were to enact.

S17: Probably wouldn’t win them anything that they wouldn’t gain on a fair map anyway so why surrender all of this hard won moral high ground that has been collected over the last decade for what maybe one seat in Congress.

S4: So essentially you have a lot of goodwill right now. Democrats don’t burn through it don’t blow it.

S16: I mean and this is not to undermine anything that the black caucus is saying. I think that they are right to want to ensure that they have a seat at the table. I think that that seat at the table can be attained through smart legislation that would be passed along with a second vote on the constitutional amendment and that with Democrats in control of both chambers and the governor’s office they have the opportunity to write the exact legislation that they want to in order to ensure that they are able to bring everybody along and convince everybody that this is the right thing to do. But I mean along with that this is a real opportunity for Democrats to really enshrine themselves as the party that believes in pro-democracy reforms when the other side is so unafraid to fight dirty to twist the rules of democracy to their own whims.

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S4: You can see why some members of the Democratic Party would say I don’t want to feel like Charlie Brown and the football here.

S8: I want to make sure that our agenda is heard by the citizens of this state and the citizens of this country.

S16: And there is no better way to have your agenda heard than making it easier for people to vote. Fair maps are good politics as well as being good government Democrats in Virginia. Win on fair maps. We saw it earlier this month. So I don’t think they necessarily have anything to gain by trying to game the system and rig the system in their own favor.

S17: If Democrats in Virginia abandon these reforms they will also be abandoning real moral high ground to be complaining and advocating against the kinds of things Republicans have done and will probably continue to do. It will really be quite a question of both sides. It’ll be you know it’ll be well as soon as you took control of Virginia you did exactly the same thing and that is a real losing argument.

S18: Dave Daley thank you so much for talking to me. Always a pleasure. Dave Daley is the author of Rat fucked yeah that really is the title Why your vote doesn’t count. He’s also working on the forthcoming UN rigged. How Americans are battling back to save democracy. What next is produced by Marie Wilson Jason De Leon Morris Silvers and Daniella Hewitt. This episode was part of our who counts project at Slate. You can go check out all the amazing reporting that’s coming from that. At Slate dot com slash who counts. I’m Mary Harris. Find me on Twitter during the day. At Mary’s desk I will talk to you tomorrow.