Virginia Dems Try to Thwart the Will of the People

Democrats might have good arguments for insisting that the Senate GOP share power, but "the will of the people" is not one of them


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.


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  1. love to thwart the will of the people, who desire freedom of movement. These faux lovers of liberty are forever in debt to the agricultural city-STATE, which has existed for centuries to restrict the free movements of peoples by use of arbitrary demarcations of land.
    Officer, am I free to gambol?

    1. You’re just tiring now.


      Start paying attention.

    2. Scroll the Troll

  2. Yeah it’s gerrymandering pure and simple, very irritating to me. McDonnell has a plan to privatize the ABC system and there’s a bunch of gun laws left over from Jim Crow that need to go the hell away. Problem is, with the Senate this even I’m sure one of the 20 Republicans can be bought off on ABC privatization. Guns are a tougher sell, VA is very pro 2A, but I am sick and tired of dealing with DMV rejects when I need hard liquor.

    1. Any correlation b/w 2A support & having to confront DMV rejects at liquor stores?

  3. The bottom line is if they weren’t allowed to ask us our race in the census, this kind of gerrymandering would be a lot harder, if not impossible.

    1. It’s not the census they use, it’s just carving up areas that voted overwhelmingly–for whatever reason–for TEAM RED or TEAM BLUE again and again.

      This shit is for incumbents to stay in power, basically, as long as they wish. That is its primary purpose.

      1. Down here, the federal courts have mandated they break it down to race to make sure there are minority majority districts. It makes for simple gerrymandering unless the 95% Democratic voting rate ever changes.

        1. How big is the Tiger Woods Memorial “Cablanasian” district?

        2. Though sometimes the Republicans get together with the black Democrats to push that. It was white Democrats that sued NC back in the 1990s; the black majority districts were super-Democratic and made neighboring districts more Republican.

          1. I vaguely remember that. How was the case decided?

            1. The Supreme Court said something like:

              “Well, you can take race into account because of past discrimination, in fact you have to, and you’re allowed to gerrymander for purely partisan reasons, but come on, that district (and the Z district of Louisiana) is just *too* racially drawn.”

              That was Shaw v. Reno.

              So basically in some cases they have to take race into account and make majority-minority districts, but they can’t go overboard, and the SCOTUS knows overboard when it sees it.

    2. Amen James.

  4. You know, I see something like this, and it makes me wonder: do these guys have principles? It’s almost like they don’t really care about helping the people.

    1. Oh, sarcasm right?

      1. Sarcasm, that’s real useful.

    2. You shouldn’t let the few bad apples who’ll inevitably whither under the bright lights of the ever-vigilant Fourth Estate cynicise your view of a wonderful system.

  5. Another way to see the gerrymandering is to note that 10 incumbent Democrats (about half) won a smaller percentage of the vote than any incumbent Republican. It was designed to ensure that even in a bad year there would be a ton of 52% Dem districts.

  6. Here in Hawaii, gerrymandering consists of trying to get either the socialist wing or the communist wing of the Democratic party to own a district, since it is 24-1 Ds to Rs in the Senate.

    1. Ouch

  7. A. Barton Hinkle Heimerschmidt
    His name is my name, too!
    Whenever we go out
    people always shout,
    “There goes A. Barton Hinkle Heimerschmidt!”

    Just cause it’s been awhile.

    We good, A. Barton – solid.

  8. I propose we pass a constitutional amendment giving the states the choice between vertical or horizontal districts and be done with it.

    1. Compactness and local convexity would be a good start.

  9. I would like to see some of the states try out Proportional Representation in the allotment of seats for the Congress. This would bring new parties and ideas to the table.

  10. I propose laying down a map and snapping chalk lines. There’s your districts; nice, safe and uniform squares.

    1. Ky Supremes require “minimum splitting of political boundaries” and strictly enforce it.

      Once a computer determines, for example, that 4 counties will have to be split – then the gerrymandering is solely between how those counties get split.

      I real example from 2000 census — Jefferson County is larger than a congressional district, so part of the county always ends up in a different district.

      The Dem plan kept things basically the same (they controlled the state house).

      The GOP plan (they controlled the state senate) added more of Jefferson County to the 2nd district but added Oldham County in its entirety to the 3rd. Its a GOP county.

      Only 1 county was split, so it met the rules.

      The Dem plan won (The GOP didnt expect that to go thru, it was a bargaining chip for boundaries in senate/house districts).

      1. The NC Constitution has a clause completely banning splitting counties. It hasn’t been enforced ever since Sims v. Reynolds.

        However, before the 2010 election the NC Supreme Court decide to semi-enforce it, by saying that plans had to avoid splitting counties to the extent possible.

        This caused relatively non gerrymandered districts for the first time in generations; it’s the cause of the massive GOP takeover of the NC House and Senate (latter first time since the GOP-Populist Fusion coalition in the 1890s.)

        GOP won about 57% of the vote for US Senate, US House, NC House, and NC Senate. Naturally, this resulted in the Dems getting 7 members to the GOP 6, with one narrow GOP win, thanks to the old gerrymander.

        The new GOP state legislature is going to get a few more seats; the governor has no role in the process. (Thanks to the Dems; governor has been Rep in recent years, but never the legislature when drawing the maps.)

  11. There’s one overwhelming problem with this thesis: it ignores that Democrats didn’t field a candidate in a lot of (very red) districts. If Dems ran in as many places as the GOP did, they’d have gotten substantially more votes statewide. I’d guess 100,000 at minimum. No way would that produce as dramatic a split as 24-16.

    That’s not to deny that there was gerrymandering, and I’d love to see a more small-govt state senate in VA, but it’s still an unfair comparison. I say that as someone who volunteered for a losing GOP senate candidate.

    1. So… didn’t read the article in your enthusiasm to comment? I think he does address that a bit.

      And as I said, if you ignore vote totals, you can also look at how every incumbent GOPer got at least 56% of the vote, compared to half the Democrats getting less than that, with a ton in the 52-53% area.

      1. I don’t think there’s a question that the GOP won overall, but there’s a big difference between a 24-16 strong majority and a 21-19 or 22-18 slim majority.

    2. Bart addresses your comment in the article. Take a look.

      1. To wit: “If Democrats received no votes in those races, it is because they deliberately chose not to.”

  12. Taxation need not be theft. Technically no one should have to pay taxes. However, unless you pay taxes you should not expect police, court, military or fire protection, and you may not trespass on public roads, send your kids to public schools or use public hospitals, owned by taxpayers only. So in essence, unless you have a private helipad or your city permits pay-per-use for roads, services, etc, enjoy hanging around at your house all day, fending off thieves who know they won’t be prosecuted if they steal your property.

    1. Ah crap, posted this on the wrong article. Oh well.

  13. The idea that any party gets a mandate in any election is a totally ridiculus and corrupt idea designed to only rationalize unwarranted behavior on part of representatives. Any claim at a mandate is a warning that those who make the claim are going to ignore the will of the people and the people’s welfare.

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