Virginia’s Gerrymander Is Still Alive—and a Deadly Threat to Environmental Justice

, Kendall Science Fellow | December 1, 2017, 12:55 pm EST
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This week, Virginia’s Board of Elections certified results from the November 7th elections, paving the way for three crucial recounts that will determine control of the Virginia House. The Democratic Party would need to take two of those seats for a majority, having already defeated more than a dozen incumbent Republicans and flipping three seats. If this wave is enough to push the Democratic Party over the 50-seat mark, many in the press will declare that the Virginia GOP’s gerrymandered districting plan is no more. But they will be wrong. The value of some Virginians’ votes are still diluted, as they were before the election. In turn, voting inequalities continue to bias the legislature’s responsiveness to environmental and health threats.

Virginia’s gerrymander has proven durable over the decade. Majorities of voters have supported the Democratic Party over the last four election cycles, only to win about one third of legislative seats. This bulwark against majority rule was engineered after the 2010 Census, by an incumbent party with absolute control over redistricting the assembly. Despite earning a substantial (nine-percent) majority of votes over incumbent Republicans this year, Democrats still have less than a 50/50 chance of gaining majority control, and if they do it will be by one seat. The fact that there is any uncertainty over whether a party with a near 10-point majority vote will control the chamber is proof of just how durable the gerrymander is. What happened on November 7th in Virginia was near historic, but it did not breach the gerrymander.

Democratic voters wasted far more votes in uncontested safe districts, 26 in fact, compared to 11 overwhelmingly Republican districts where Democrats did not field candidates. This is illustrated in the graphic below with full blue bars (left), indicating uncontested Democratic seats, and bars that are filled red with no blue, uncontested Republican seats.  While Democrats tend to reside in higher density, urban regions, one of the most powerful gerrymandering tactics is to pack opposition voters into districts so that their surplus votes (over 50%) are wasted. This year, extensive mobilization efforts, coupled with a Gubernatorial campaign tainted with racist overtones, provided the bump that Democrats needed in the most competitive districts (around the 50% mark). The middle of the graph depicts the contests where Democrats reached 50% or higher, reaching into the competitive districts held by GOP incumbents (and several open seats).

2017 Democratic district vote shares (blue), sorted by 2015 Republican vote shares (red). Democratic vote shares in 2015 uncontested GOP districts are sorted by 2017 Democratic vote share.

In districts that were contested in both cycles, Democratic candidates gained an average of 9.6 points (with a 5-point standard deviation). Democrats also contested far more districts than in 2015 (the solid red area with blue bars), picking off several seats against incumbents where they had not previously fielded candidates. Had the wave reached into districts where Republicans typically win by 15-20 points, we would have seen the type of gerrymander backfiring that occurred in Congress in the late 1800’s. In 1894, for example, a vote shift of less than 10 points against the Democratic Party cost them more than 50% of their seats, the largest loss in Congressional history.

The Democratic wave was enough to sweep away the GOP’s supermajority, but not enough to reverse the tides. Unless the Democratic Party can repeat their impressive turnout effort in 2019, it will be impossible to hold on to those marginal seats. Of course, under a fair system, a party with a nine-point statewide lead would have a cushion of several seats for close legislative votes. Even if Democrats do gain control, that one seat majority is vulnerable to being picked apart by the same powerful actors that helped engineer this electoral malpractice in the first place, at a great cost to Virginians.

Probably the single most powerful player is Dominion Energy. Consistently one of the largest donors to state election campaigns, Dominion greatly benefitted from a gerrymander engineered in large part by one of its biggest supporters, Appropriations Chair S. Chris Jones. Since 2011, Dominion has been remarkably successful at pushing through a rate freeze law that allowed it to hold on to over $100 million it would have paid back to customers, limiting the growth of clean energy technologies like solar power, and avoiding regulatory oversight of the toxic pollutants that it dumps into Virginia waterways. Remarkable enough that several of the successful Democratic challengers in this election made Dominion’s political influence central to their campaigns, refusing to accept their contributions.

The Dominion rate freeze passed the VA House on a 72-24 vote, so it’s not clear that even a fair districting plan would have stopped it, but it definitely would have changed the terms of negotiation. And because it has still insulated the legislature from an accurate representation of public support, the Virginia gerrymander weakens voters’ ability to protect themselves against current and impending health threats. For example, measured by the amount of toxic chemicals discharged into them, Virginia’s waterways are among the worst in the nation. Hundreds of companies are allowed to legally discharge toxins into waters upstream from recreational places where people regularly swim and fish. Arsenic levels up to 400 times greater than what is safe for residential soil have been measured along the James River.

Dan River coal ash spill. Photo: Appalachian Voices

According to a University of Richmond study, eight coal ash disposal sites along major rivers are significant hazards to nearby communities. Yet Virginia’s legislative oversight and regulatory programs are “bare boned and fragmented”, with utilities failing to provide adequate information about the amount, condition and stability of toxic chemicals and containment.

Nor do Virginians bear this burden equally. 76 percent of Virginia’s coal-fired plants are located in low-income communities or communities of color, including Possum Point, Spruance Genco and the Clover Power Station. Cumulative chemical exposure in such communities increases the risk of cancer, lung, and neurological diseases. The cancer rate in rural Appalachian Virginia is 15% higher than the national average, reflecting both environmental threats and lack of access to health care.  Earlier this year, an effort to expand Medicaid was killed on a party-line vote.

And as the impact of climate change becomes more pronounced, Virginia is on the front lines. A UCS analysis of the impact of tidal flooding showed that cities like Norfolk could see four times the frequency of flooding by 2030, while they already spend $6 million a year on road improvement, drainage and raising buildings. In places like Hampton Roads, sea level has already risen by more than a foot over the last 80 years. Yet members of the Virginia House, entrenched in power, continue to deny even the existence of sea level rise. Unfortunately, even a gerrymander as durable as Virginia’s cannot stop actual rising tides.

For their own safety, and the future of the Commonwealth, Virginians must continue the fight to have their full voting rights restored. Many are already suffering, and many more will pay a heavy price for policies that are unresponsive to public needs. Political equality and the integrity of the electoral process are prerequisites to evidence-based policy making that is in the public interest.

Posted in: Science and Democracy

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