The 2017 election between Democrat Shelly Simonds and Republican David Yancey for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates came down to luck, literally. Both candidates received exactly the same number of votes and so the state, in its Solomonic wisdom, held a random draw to decide the winner. Yancey won. As a consequence, the Democratic Party came up one seat short of taking back the House.
Two years later, during yesterday’s election for the same seat, Simonds didn’t have to count on luck—good, or bad. She received 58% of the votes. Yancey got 40%. With her win, Democrats gained control of the state government for the first time in a quarter century, dealing a blow to the Republican Party and its leader, US president Donald Trump during a national election year.
While Simonds’s victory is in line with trends in the rest of the state, she appears to have benefited from another important detail: This was the first election since a court forced the state to redraw gerrymandered voting districts.
Gerrymandering is the process in which districts are drawn to favor a certain political party. This is done by either “cracking” or “packing” a district. Cracking tries to separate the opposing party’s voters among many different districts, limiting their chances for a majority. Packing is the opposite. This entails drawing districts so that as many voters from an opposing part as possible are concentrated in a few districts, limiting their broader voting power.
After the 2010 census, 11 districts in Virginia were created that packed black populations into a few districts. The move was at odds with the Constitution because it diminished the voting power of black people.
A court battle over the gerrymandering stretched out for a few years, ultimately reaching the Supreme Court, which in 2017 ordered a federal court to re-examine the 11 districts in question. That court found the gerrymandered districts violated anti-discrimination laws and ordered them redrawn to more evenly distribute the black population. The Supreme Court refused to hear a subsequent challenge.
This was the first election in which the redrawn districts had a chance to express their preference, and it resulted in four flipped seats for Democrats, including Simonds’s. For the first time since 1993, Virginia—a battleground state for the presidential election—now has a Democratic House, Senate, and governor.