October 25, 2011

VIRGINIA’S STATE legislative elections are two weeks off, but it’s not too late for a prediction: In the Old Dominion, proud home of the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, two-party competition in state elections is dead.

Of the 100 contests for seats in the House of Delegates, just 27 feature both a Democrat and a Republican. Of those, a good many are races in name only, with one of the major-party candidates having no experience, no money, no campaign organization and no hope of victory. The state Senate does slightly better, but even there, a Republican faces a Democrat in 25 of the 40 races, with many of those landslides in the making.

This pathetic facsimile of democracy is a result of computer-assisted gerrymandering, carried out this year by the majority parties in the House (the Republicans) and the Senate (the Democrats). Neither party makes any pretense of seeking the high road; in the name of self-interest, both choose their own voters and draw their electoral maps accordingly, thereby flipping the basic foundation of democracy — voters choosing candidates — neatly on its head.

In fact, this has been the case for years, as scores of blowout, no-competition elections attest. Of the 100 races for the House of Delegates in 2009, the second-place finisher came within 10 percentage points of the winner in just 13 contests — when there was a contest at all.

This year, with the lines freshly redrawn on the electoral map, things may get even more lopsided. Forty-three Republicans running for the House of Delegates have no opponent, and three others face only independents. Twenty Democrats are running unopposed, and seven face only independents.

Cynically, one might suppose that Virginia is no different from many other states where the two parties are up to the same shenanigans. But a crucial difference is that Virginia is, in many respects, an evenly divided state — or perhaps one tilting just slightly Republican — having backed governors, senators and a president from each party in the last dozen years. Even with redistricting in the public interest, not every legislative and congressional election would reflect that division of power, but many would.

There are plenty of culprits, from both parties. One worth mentioning is Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who as a candidate in 2009 promised to fashion a better, bipartisan system, only to abandon that promise once in office. When it came to taking on the entrenched political powers in Richmond, Mr. McDonnell buckled, named a toothless commission whose recommended maps were utterly ignored — and broke his word to Virginia voters.

The sorry result of partisan redistricting is what’s on view in state capitals, and in Congress, today — incumbents in safe seats, striking immoderate, tough stances and lacking any incentive to compromise or seek common ground lest they alienate their highly partisan home districts. It’s a surefire recipe for legislative impasse and stalemate.