Democrat Dick Saslaw, the (former) majority leader in the State Senate, says Republicans “are trying to overrule the will of the people and claim a majority they did not earn” because “half the state voted for Democrats.” Is he right? Absolutely not – in fact, precisely the opposite is true. It’s the Democrats who are trying to thwart the voters’ clear wishes.
On Nov. 8 Virginians elected 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans to the State Senate. Because Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling presides over the Senate and can cast tie-breaking votes, the GOP has claimed a majority, and is refusing to establish a power-sharing arrangement like the one the Senate operated under the last time it was evenly divided, in the mid-1990s.
Back then, the shoe was on the other foot: A Democrat, Don Beyer, was lieutenant governor. Democrats said they therefore had an effective majority, and rebuffed GOP demands to share power—until Virgil Goode, a DINO (Democrat in Name Only) said he wouldn’t be party to such a plan. Goode’s position forced a compromise and infuriated his colleagues; one Democrat fumed that Goode had "absolutely lost his mind."
Now the Democrats are saying what the Republicans were saying then, and vice versa. Putting aside the flip-flops on both sides, though, what’s wrong with Saslaw’s position? In a word: gerrymandering.
Saslaw’s statement hangs its hat on the fact that the voters elected 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. If that’s the only number you look at, then it’s fair to say neither party won a majority—of seats. But what about a majority of votes?
On that score, there’s no contest. According to results from the State Board of Elections, Virginia’s Senate races produced a statewide total of 536,087 votes for Democratic candidates. Republican candidates won 768,914 votes—an astounding 43 percent more. Independent and write-in candidates claimed another 49,979 votes. (Yesterday the Republican Party of Virginia produced slightly different totals—771,000 to 554,000. The State Board of Elections does not provide official statewide party tallies.)
If Senate seats were apportioned according to aggregate vote totals, then Democrats would be entitled to 16, not 20. So how did they get 20? By drawing the new district lines in a manner guaranteed to favor Democratic candidates. Instead of letting voters choose, gerrymandering essentially lets parties assign voters to candidates. (It should be said the voters' own predictability makes this possible.)
The Republican majority in the House pulled a similar stunt, of course. But the effect of gerrymandering there was far less pronounced. Republicans received a statewide total of 790,354 votes to the Democrats' 423,462. (Independents and write-ins got 57,538 votes.) That would entitle Republicans to 65 seats based on the statewide split; they actually won 67.
People who favor one party over the other could raise some objections. They might point out that in the races where only one of the major parties fielded a candidate—and there were a lot of those—the vote for the write-in and independent candidates should be counted as votes against the major-party candidate. For instance, in the 15th Senate District, incumbent Republican Frank Ruff got 36,193 votes. The Democrats didn’t field a challenger, so the 281 write-in votes probably came from people who didn’t like Ruff, or Republicans, or both.
Similarly, independent candidate Preston Brown’s 7,391 votes might be counted as Republican votes against Democratic incumbent Henry Marsh’s 16,711. But then again, maybe not. Maybe some people who voted for Brown simply were tired of Marsh. You can’t be sure, and once you start pretending to read voters’ minds, you can dream up any number of wild theories.
Thing is: It doesn’t matter. Even if you gave the Democrats every single vote for independent and write-in candidates – including even the votes that might be considered pro-Republican or anti-Democrat, like those for Brown – Democrats still would end up with only 40 percent of the votes cast in State Senate races. And 40 percent of 40 seats is 16, not 20.
Well, Democrats might say, we really should look only at the aggregate votes from contested races, since the uncontested races are a poor measure of voter preference and therefore don’t really count. Granted, there were more uncontested Republican candidates than uncontested Democratic candidates. But why is that? Because (a) Democrats packed Republicans into certain districts when they drew the lines, and then (b) declined to run anyone against them. If Democrats received no votes in those races, it is because they deliberately chose not to.
None of this settles the debate about whether the GOP should share power, or whether Bolling can vote on Senate organizing questions, or how the courts ultimately will answer those questions—if it comes to that. The point is simply this: Democrats redrew Senate district lines to give themselves maximum partisan advantage on Nov. 8—and still received 232,000 fewer votes than Republicans did. They might have any number of good arguments for insisting that the Senate GOP share power. But “the will of the people” is not one of them.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.