Virginia residents wait in line in the pre-dawn hours to vote in the Virginia primary at a historic property called the Hunter House at Nottoway Park in Vienna, Va., on March 1, 2016.
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

For Democrats, winning more votes isn’t always enough


Picking up on a theme he stressed repeatedly throughout his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump yesterday asserted without evidence that when it comes to voting in the United States, the “system is rigged.”

Putting aside the oddity of seeing a sitting American president trying to undermine public confidence in his own country’s electoral system, I suppose the obvious follow-up question is, “Rigged for whom”?

The question seemed especially relevant yesterday.

Lady luck registered as a Republican Thursday, handing the party a victory in an unusual lottery to determine the outcome of not only a tied Virginia House of Delegates race, but control of the entire chamber.

With the outcome, Republicans are set to maintain their narrow 51-49 majority in the state House – though Democrats indicated they may still call for another recount, meaning the saga is not quite over yet. Republicans also control the state Senate, while the governor is a Democrat.

Let’s back up for a minute to review how we reached this point. Going into this year’s elections in Virginia, most believed Democrats would fare well, but the idea of Republicans losing their majority in the House of Delegates seemed completely unrealistic. The GOP majority was simply too large, and the district lines were drawn in such a way as to effectively be voter-proof.

What no one saw coming was the Democratic tidal wave in the commonwealth. Going into Election Day, Republicans had 66 seats to the Dems’ 34. Voters nearly erased the GOP advantage, leaving Republicans with the narrowest of majorities in both legislative chambers.

The broader point, however, is that they didn’t really earn those majorities, at least not insofar as the will of the electorate is concerned. As University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato noted yesterday, Democrats received most of the legislative votes – indeed, at 55% to 45%, it wasn’t especially close – but it’s Republicans who’ll end up with most of the legislative power.

There’s no great mystery as to how this happened: Republicans took full advantage of gerrymandering, to the point that they could lose statewide races by double digits, but remain in control of the legislature anyway.

What was that the president was saying about a “rigged” system?

Conditions in the commonwealth, meanwhile, are not yet fully resolved. Control of Virginia’s House of Delegates has come down to one seat that, by some counts, was exactly tied before a Republican’s name was pulled out of a bowl yesterday.

The legal fight over the outcome isn’t over just yet.