“When I am weaker than you,” wrote science-fiction author Frank Herbert, “I ask for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.” The words would make a fine monument in Virginia’s Capitol Square.
At the moment, Virginia Republicans are stronger than Democrats—and doing everything they can to get stronger still. Last week they rammed a redistricting measure through the Senate. The plan packs minority voters even more tightly into certain districts and, political cartographers believe, would give the GOP several more seats in the chamber.
Republicans followed that up by advancing a measure that would reapportion Virginia’s electors by congressional district. The motive is obvious. Virginia’s districts are carefully tailored to Republicans’ advantage. So under the system proposed by Sen. Charles Carrico, President Barack Obama would have received only four electoral votes in Virginia, instead of 13. Republicans pretend they merely want to make the system more fair. Democrats, naturally, are screaming bloody murder. “The deck is stacked,” gripes Sen. Chap Petersen.
Yet this is not a new proposal. It has been bobbing around like a Styrofoam cup in a tidal pond for two decades. For most of that time, Democrats were pushing it—and Republicans were the ones pushing back.
“House Panel OKs Changing Electoral System,” ran a Times-Dispatch headline in 1992, when Democrats ruled the House. Under that measure, “electors would be apportioned according to the presidential vote in each congressional district,” the story said. “In Virginia, that could benefit Democrats and deprive President Bush of electoral votes.” State GOP executive director Joe Elton called the proposal “another example of the Democrats trying to change the rules in the middle of the game.”
There’s nothing wrong with changing the rules if they’re broken—and the Electoral College is, at the least, flawed. But since congressional districts are distorted by gerrymandering, incorporating them in the system is no improvement.
Nevertheless, Democratic Del. James Scott carried such a bill for years. In 2001, he was joined in sponsorship by Democratic stalwart and State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple. Seven years later, Democratic State Sen. John C. Miller took up the cause. Democratic Del. Vivian Watts long supported the change, and introduced her own bill to allocate electors by congressional district as recently as last year. At one point during those years, Republican Del. Riley Ingram railed against the proposal—calling himself “dead set against” it and insisting that it ran contrary to the design of “our forefathers who founded this great country.” Those forefathers, he said, “put in the Electoral College for checks and balances.” Oh.
All of this is great fun to watch, and if the story ended here one could simply wish a pox on both their houses and be done with it. But the story doesn’t end there: The GOP’s Electoral-College ploy is only one move in a series of dubious machinations.
Among them: the Senate redistricting maneuver. Republicans were able to pull that off in the evenly divided chamber because Sen. Henry Marsh was absent, attending the MLK-day inauguration of President Barack Obama. Nice.
Republicans also have been working tirelessly to impose more stringent voter-ID measures. Democrats have overstated the effect of those measures, but to say they have done less harm than they could is not to say they have done no harm at all. And any harm they do is amplified by the fact that the measures are needless: Evidence of voter impersonation at the polls is about as common as unicorn droppings. In fact, the most recent case of electoral fraud in Virginia involves a GOP operative. In October Colin Small was charged with 13 felony and misdemeanor counts after voter-registration applications were found in the trash behind a store in Harrisonburg.
Conservatives in the GOP also managed something of a putsch some months back when the state central committee changed the party nomination method from a primary to a convention. The shift, which benefits a small cadre of purists, led Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling to withdraw from this year’s gubernatorial contest.
Politics is a blood sport, not patty-cake, and nobody should cry too many tears for those who let themselves get outmaneuvered through what political scientist William H. Riker called “the art of political manipulation.” All the same, the Virginia GOP’s moves look tactically smart—but strategically self-destructive.
Instead of seeking to broaden the party’s appeal, Republicans have narrowed it by driving a hard-right social agenda on issues such as gay rights and abortion. Now they are trying to insulate themselves from public disapproval of policy by manipulating procedure. In so doing, they are making the same mistake Virginia Democrats once did—when they relied on partisan gerrymandering to hold a majority of seats long after they had lost a majority of the popular vote.
We all know how well that worked out for them in the long run.