- State House, Senate both switch from Republican majorities
- Democrats will guide election map drawing after 2020 census
Democrats improved their prospects for years of power in Virginia by gaining control of the legislative branch just before once-a-decade redistricting.
That party’s candidates appeared to win 21 of 40 state Senate seats and at least 53 of 100 seats in the House of Delegates, with some races too close to call according to unofficial returns posted by the state Department of Elections.
The lawmakers elected Tuesday and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) will control the legislative map-drawing process that will take place after the 2020 census and have a chance to alter a wide range of state policies.
A legislative change of attitude on social issues could have “profound implications,” said Bob Roberts, a professor of public policy and administration at James Madison University.
Roberts said he anticipated action on gun control, an Equal Rights Amendment, and prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. He also predicted a repeal of restrictions on the types of facilities that can perform abortions and a redistricting process that reverses the partisan tilt of congressional and statehouse maps.
“This could make it very difficult for the Republican Party to regain control of the General Assembly for the next decade,” Roberts said in a telephone interview.
The last time the Democrats sat in the governor’s seat and controlled both chambers of the Legislature was in 1992 and 1993. Republicans had such a “trifecta” in 2000 and 2001, as well as 2012 and 2013.
The Democratic takeover may have been assisted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In June, the high court refused to disturb a lower court ruling that found state Republicans had unconstitutionally harmed minority voters while drawing voting districts for the House of Delegates.
Virginia’s court-drawn map was used in the 2019 election and was largely considered to be more favorable to Democrats than the Legislature-drawn jurisdictions that were struck down.
State lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment earlier this year that would alter the process for 2021 redistricting efforts. The amendment would create a hybrid redistricting system, run by a panel made up of eight lawmakers and eight citizens selected by retired circuit court judges.
Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, a group that advocates for changes to election processes, said he’s optimistic that the new, Democratic-controlled Legislature will give it the approval next session needed to send the amendment to voters.
Republican lawmakers who supported the effort last session probably wouldn’t change their votes, he said, and only a few Democrats would have to be convinced. “There’s a populism about this” that new lawmakers are likely to support, Cannon said.
“Newly elected legislators will have to contend with public will and technical innovation that will insist on a fairer line-drawing process,” agreed Rebecca Green, co-director of the Election Law Program at William & Mary Law School.
Until January, when the newly elected lawmakers are sworn in, Republicans run both the state House of Delegates and the Senate, by margins of 51 to 49 and 21 to 19, respectively.
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