Tuesday's election in Virginia was a stunning victory for Democrats. Their governor candidate, Ralph Northam, won by 9 percentage points, after polls showed his lead shrinking to 3 or so in the race's final days. They also won the other two statewide races, for lieutenant governor and attorney general. And they cut deeply into the Republicans' advantage in the House of Delegates, winning three open seats and taking out at least 13 incumbents. With recounts in a number of races underway, it's entirely possible they could seize control of the chamber for the first time in two decades.
That looks like a triumph, and it is. But it also demonstrates in one state just how much the game of elections is rigged in Republicans' favor.
Why is that? Consider the mountain Democrats had to climb in order to even have a chance at controlling the state legislature. Virginia is a swing state, but one that has turned decisively blue, particularly since the more diverse urban and suburban areas of the state (like the Washington suburbs in the north) have been growing much more rapidly than the rural areas of the state where Republicans dominate. The last three Democratic presidential candidates won Virginia, and both the state's senators are Democrats as well. Yet before Tuesday, not only did Republicans enjoy a narrow 21-19 advantage in the state senate, they controlled two-thirds of the seats in the House of Delegates, holding the chamber by a 66-34 margin.
Democrats might manage to take control of the House of Delegates once the counting and recounting is done. But when you add up all the votes cast, you find that Democratic candidates won 54.7 percent of the two-party vote, while Republican candidates won only 45.3 percent. Yet Republicans may well retain control despite having lost the popular vote by such a significant margin.
That's an affront to majority rule, yet it's repeated in state after state and at the federal level — again and again to the benefit of Republicans. It has partly to do with the fact that Republican voters are spread around more efficiently, while Democrats are often concentrated in cities, in effect "wasting" votes (if you win a race 95-5, you've used up a lot of votes that could have been more advantageously deployed elsewhere). But it's also because Republicans successfully gerrymander districts to maximize their advantage. Because Republicans had a great election in 2010, they were in control in many places for the redistricting that takes place every decade once the Census is complete, and they didn't let the opportunity to redraw the lines pass by. While there are a few states where Democrats have been as ruthless at gerrymandering as Republicans, it's something Republicans are particularly aggressive about.
That's just one of the advantages the GOP enjoys, some of which are built into the system. The United States Senate is constructed on a foundation of inequality, giving outsize power to small, rural states at the expense of states with large metropolitan areas. Wyoming's 585,000 souls get the same two votes in the Senate as California's 39 million — or 67 times as much voting power per person. It's likely to get even worse in the future as the most populous states continue to grow faster than rural states.
The Republican small-state advantage then translates into a boost in the Electoral College, since each state gets as many electoral votes as they have members in the Senate and the House. That's why in two of the last five presidential elections, the Democrat got more votes but the Republican wound up in the Oval Office.
It's entirely possible that in 2018, we'll see a situation in the House of Representatives much like what's happening in Virginia now, in which Democrats would win a majority of votes for Congress but still find themselves in the minority. It has happened before: In 2012, Democrats won more votes for House seats nationally than Republicans, but the GOP still held on to a comfortable 33-seat advantage. Most analysts assume that for Democrats to take back the House, they'd need to not just outpoll Republicans but win by a significant margin.
In other words, Republicans win when they win, and sometimes even when they lose. Democrats, on the other hand, often have to put together a landslide to win.
And that's not even to mention the aggressive campaign of vote suppression Republicans have undertaken, passing laws to make voting more difficult and cumbersome in the hopes that populations more likely to vote for Democrats, particularly African-Americans, will be discouraged from voting (in one recent case about a North Carolina vote suppression law, the judges who struck it down wrote that the law's provisions "target African Americans with almost surgical precision"). They've pushed vote suppression as far as they can, and there's a good chance that the conservative-dominated Supreme Court will let them get away with it.
The big picture is that Republicans enter every election with some built-in advantages, and then when they get power, they alter the system to exaggerate those advantages and tilt the playing field even more in their direction. Democrats can overcome it, just as someone wearing ankle weights might be able to win a race against opponents not so encumbered. But that doesn't mean it was fair.