Although the Virginia governorship was Tuesday’s marquee race, the Virginia House of Delegates produced the day’s most surprising result. Democrats picked up at least 15 seats and reduced a 66 to 34 Republican advantage to, at most, 51 to 49. A gerrymandered chamber thought to be safely Republican suddenly became a toss-up — and may yet flip to Democratic control after all the recounts are completed. This unexpected outcome raises the question: Can gerrymandering really be such a problem if a party’s legislative edge can virtually disappear overnight? This question is especially important at present, as the Supreme Court mulls over Gill vs. Whitford, a potentially historic case about redistricting in Wisconsin. The question also has a clear answer: Of course gerrymandering is deeply troublesome even if it can be overcome, at least temporarily, by a wave election.
Consider the following facts about the Virginia House of Delegates: In three previous elections (2011, 2013 and 2015), Republicans won 66 or 67 out of 100 seats. Republicans maintained this supermajority even though Democrats narrowly won every statewide race over this period. To secure (roughly) half of the House seats on Tuesday, Democrats had to earn well over 50% of the statewide House vote. This was Democrats’ best showing in more than 30 years. Had Republicans done as well, they would have won far more than 50 seats: close to 70, in fact.
The upshot of these statistics is that gerrymandering works. The Virginia district plan operated exactly as intended in prior elections, returning overwhelming Republican majorities even when voters slightly preferred Democratic statewide candidates. And while a Democratic tsunami hit Virginia on Tuesday, if it recedes even modestly, the map will revert to massively favoring Republicans.