Think Elections Are Rigged? Here’s One Way to Make the System Fairer

by Brian Cannon

“Rigged” is the word of the election season. Donald Trump said this week that the debate was rigged. Bernie Sanders supporters used the term to describe the party’s control of the primary process. The meme is resonating with voters, too. Here at One Virginia 2021, we’ve taken notice as well: Our new documentary film produced by WCVE on gerrymandering is called GerryRIGGED.*

People have the sense that the fix is in. Politics feels like a broken system run by people who get rich inside their “public service” and enjoy an unbelievable re-election rate. What do we mean by this re-election rate? Consider, all 435 voting seats are up for re-election in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cook Political Report says that only 37 are competitive!  That’s embarrassing.

Last November, when all 140 seats in Virginia’s General Assembly were up, 122 of the members chose to run for re-election.  All 122 were re-elected.

In November of 2014, when Sen. Mark Warner and Ed Gillespie were running neck and neck in a U.S. Senate race in which the candidates were separated by less than 1% of the vote, all congressional seats in Virginia were also up for re-election.  In not one of those congressional races did a challenger come within 15%.

I hate to be so disheartening as to say the system is rigged, but it sure does appear that way for incumbent politicians.

So can we fix it?  In 2011, college students competed in map drawing exercise put on by the Wason Center for Public Policy with the same software the politicians use to gerrymander. Only the college students were using good government criteria such as:

– keeping localities together, not carving up neighborhoods;
– respecting communities of interest;
– drawing districts that pass compactness measurements and also the eye test; and importantly
– not drawing districts to benefit one party or politician.

It’s not rocket science, just good government.

The result?  The student maps were better. In each individual category and in even pairs of good government categories, the student maps were superior to the political maps. The average number of competitive districts in the Virginia Senate drawn by politicians was 6.89 seats out of 40. The average for the students was 9.67. For the House of Delegates, the politicians averaged 24 competitive seats and the students averaged 26.5 competitive seats, with one winning map having 31 competitive seats. Incidentally, “competitive” refers to races that could be as far apart as 55% to 45%. Competition is so hard to come by, the window has to be wide.

For more on the competition’s results and a wonderful read on the history of Virginia gerrymandering, please see Altman and McDonald’s article in the University of Richmond Law Review.

We can do this better, folks. States as politically and geographically diverse as Iowa, Ohio, Arizona, and Washington have all figured this out.  Good Virginians on both sides of the aisle are pushing for reform in both chambers of the General Assembly. Perhaps the the concern about “rigged” elections will embolden more people to step forward and call for electoral reform.

* Merriam-Webster does an excellent job of reporting on the opaque origins of the term “rig” as a verb meaning “to manipulate or control usually by deceptive or dishonest means.”


  1. Larrytheg

    I think gerrymandering pales in comparison to a two-party-dominated system largely financed by secret money combined with a strategy of suppressing votes from certain demographics.

    And clearly, the GOP is much more competent at “growing” local elected into potent higher office contenders.

    Bacionus just posted the saga of meth in job-devastated coal-mining country where, guess who the unemployed vote for over and over to send to Richmond and to Congress and who they blame for the collapse of the coal industry?

    can’t change that by re-drawing voter districts!

    1. Acbar

      No, you can’t change it merely by re-drawing voter districts, but it helps to make as many districts as possible more competitive. Even if the same old same-old normally gets re-elected, he’s likely to feel greater pressure to be more moderate in his rhetoric and in his policies if he is within range of being upset by a combination of his all regular opposition plus most of the independent+middle-of-the-road voters. Of course, the politician wants the opposite: as “safe” a seat as possible, from which he can be as politically extreme as he feels like (or moreso, to appeal to his ‘base’).

  2. Larrytheg

    Oh I totally support compact districts and would be glad to have a computer draw them – Congressional, State and county precinct!

    People may not realize it but precinct boundaries do not necessarily align with State Delegate, Senator and Federal House boundaries and there are what is known as “split” precincts where – depending on where one lives in that precinct – their vote is for different districts – and the election officials have to keep it straight or votes go to the wrong districts.

    Folks might think this is not that big a deal – but each precinct can have thousands of votes – in a era where several hundred might decide an election.

    one messed up precinct could screw up an election… dirty little secret…