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Virginia's Electoral Farce
Competitive elections are a hallmark of democracy. If only Virginia had them.

Monday, October 5, 2009

MOST VIRGINIANS are under the quaint impression that their state has a competitive two-party system. If only. The sad fact is that for the vast majority of legislative races in the state, real competition is a thing of the past. For that, Virginians can thank state lawmakers of both parties, who for decades have drawn lines on the voting maps for no higher purpose than to preserve their own grip on power.

So it is significant that both candidates in the race for governor are now in favor of scrapping the state's blatantly partisan decennial redistricting system. (Actually, "system" is too elegant a word for a process by which the majority party retreats to a back room and simply does as it pleases.) State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate, is in fact a longstanding champion of redistricting reform designed to minimize partisan considerations. And while former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican candidate, for years opposed and obstructed reform efforts, he recently switched sides and now endorses the creation of a bipartisan commission with a nonpartisan leader to redraw the state's electoral districts every 10 years with extensive public input.

Whatever the reasons for Mr. McDonnell's election-year conversion, it is a welcome development and a sign of at least modest hope. And none too soon. In the last state legislative elections, in 2007, just 17 of the 140 seats in Virginia's General Assembly were seriously contested. Two years before that, when all 100 House seats were up for grabs, just 12 races were competitive. In other words, 85 to 90 percent of the lawmakers in the commonwealth have unassailably safe seats. Thus have Virginia's elections become predictable.

For years, when Democrats ruled Richmond and were determined to preserve their privileged status, they rebuffed efforts at reforming this perversion of representative democracy. Then Republicans, having taken control of the General Assembly, returned the favor by shutting Democrats out of redistricting. But for the past few years, with the General Assembly divided between a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House, there seemed a flickering chance for a better future.

As we've noted, the wise course would be for both parties to seize on their current positions of relative strength by adopting a fair process in which lines get drawn without reference to voting trends, partisan affiliations or the addresses of incumbents. Unfortunately, Republicans in the House, apparently betting the GOP will make gains in this fall's elections that will allow them to call the shots in the redistricting scheduled for 2011, killed reform legislation this year in Richmond.

No matter who wins the governor's race next month, it will be a test of leadership for the state's next executive to usher in a new system whereby voters get to choose their representatives -- and not the other way around.

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