While most Americans were watching President Barack Obama’s second inauguration Monday, Virginia Republicans were taking advantage of the distraction to gerrymander the Commonwealth.
The Virginia state senate is evenly divided, with 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. On Monday, however, Democratic senator Henry Marsh was spending Martin Luther King Day in Washington D.C. attending Obama’s inauguration — an event that certainly had special resonance for Marsh, a veteran of the civil rights movement.
In Marsh’s absence the Republicans held a 20-19 advantage, and they used it to surprise Democrats by passing a redistricting plan that will pave the way for the GOP to seize control of the Senate in 2015. According to Virginia political blogger Ben Tribbett, under the new district lines, the balance of power in the upper chamber could shift from a 20-20 split to a 27-13 Republican super-majority.
Marsh’s temporarily empty seat provided the GOP’s only opportunity to pass the controversial redistricting. In the case of a 20-20 tie, Virginia’s Republican lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, would have cast the deciding vote; on Monday afternoon his spokeswoman reportedly said Bolling has “has grave concerns” over the GOP plan, and would not have supported it.
Additionally, the state’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, condemned the surprise vote to Talking Points Memo, saying “I certainly don’t think that’s a good way to do business.” He would not commit to vetoing the measure, however.
Virginia Democrats have angrily denounced the move. Senator Don McEachin (D-Henrico) slammed the redistricting as “secretive and underhanded” to the Associated Press, and noted “The public has no idea what we’re about to do adopting this substitute, nor would they know in the next three days that it would take for this bill to ultimately pass.”
Senator Dave W. Marsden told the AP, “I’m ashamed of what the Senate did here today,” adding, “If you can’t win at the ballot box, win in parliamentary maneuvering.”
Indeed, rigging the electoral system has become an increasingly common strategy for the Republican Party. Although Democrats won 1.1 million more votes than Republicans in U.S. House races in 2012, the GOP managed to maintain a 33-seat majority due to creative redistricting. The Republican State Legislative Committee even went as far as to brag about the move in a public report.
Additionally, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has endorsed a plan to allocate Wisconsin’s electoral votes by congressional district. Due to the state’s 2011 redistricting, under the RNC-backed plan Wisconsin would have awarded Mitt Romney as many electoral votes from the state as President Obama, despite Romney having won 213,019 fewer votes overall.
Virginia’s move could lead to a similar electoral-vote-rigging plan if it allows the GOP to claim a state senate majority; after all, Priebus noted that electoral-vote-splitting is “something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at.”
That looming battle increases the importance of Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial race, which is expected to be between Republican attorney general (and voting rights opponent) Ken Cuccinelli and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe; if Cuccinelli wins, the GOP would have the full control that Priebus seeks.
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