September 29, 2013

VIRGINIANS WHO are proud of the starring role the state played in the birth of the United States know that the House of Burgesses, which held its first meeting in 1619, was the first assembly of elected lawmakers in North America. That deliberative body was the precursor of today’s House of Delegates, whose democratic pedigree has sadly eroded to the point of farce.

With each biennial election, voters who choose the 100 members of the House engage in an exercise that increasingly resembles a parody of democracy rather than the real thing.

In the races for the House in 2005, for example, the second-place finisher came within 10 percentage points of the winner in just 12 of the 100 contests. In 2007, 10 of the 100 races were that competitive. In the most recent round of elections, two years ago, five of 100 races were that close.

That’s right: In 2011, 95 percent of the winners, almost all of them incumbents, were running in unassailably safe districts. Just 27 races even featured a Democrat versus a Republican. In 63 races, just one candidate was on the ballot, depriving voters of even the illusion of choice. The state Senate, which holds its elections every four years, is only slightly more competitive.

For this pitiable state of affairs, Virginians can thank their elected representatives. Equipped with granular data on voters and precincts, and armed with high-tech computer mapping programs, they have gerrymandered the state to a fare-thee-well in what amounts to an iron-clad incumbent-protection program. Voters may believe they are choosing their lawmakers when they go to the polls. In fact, it is the other way around.

The danger is that people will stop bothering to cast ballots in state legislative races. It would be hard to blame them. The solution is to adopt a form of nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting reform, as a dozen or so states have done .

For years, GOP lawmakers seeking to cement their control of the House have blocked attempts at redistricting reform even when they cleared the state Senate. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican who embraced reform as a candidate for governor four years ago, made good on his promise by naming a bipartisan redistricting panel before the 2011 elections . The panel produced sensible recommendations for drawing new electoral districts, but they were ignored by lawmakers in both parties who insisted that the process remain politicized.

Like Mr. McDonnell, both current candidates for governor, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, support redistricting reform. That’s heartening. But it will go nowhere in the legislature without a major push from Virginians, who are within their rights to be tired of sham elections.