The partisan stakes in Virginia's legislative elections on Tuesday have never been higher. After losing the governor's mansion and the state Senate, Democrats are fighting to keep a one-seat majority in the House of Delegates. Republicans seek to sweep state government for the first time since Reconstruction.
But behind a torrent of political ads lies a disturbing reality: sixty-one delegate races out of 100 already are decided with no major party opposition.
Why would the parties give up on nearly two-thirds of the seats when a single seat change could shift control of the legislature? They know that Virginia's electoral rules make most races lopsided and voters irrelevant.
If even 10 Virginia races are decided by victory margins of less than 10 percent, it will be a surprise. In the 1990s three of four delegate races have been won by margins of at least 20 percent.
Since 1991 only 3 percent of the 300 delegate races have resulted in a partisan shift. Republicans control every seat they held in 1991 -- and have advanced on Democrats one seat at a time.
Some blame this near-stasis on incumbency. Indeed, only four incumbents have been defeated since 1991, but most open seats also stay comfortably with one party. In 1997 only one of nine open seats changed hands.
A better explanation for lack of competitiveness is that most delegate districts are designed for one party. In 2001 Virginia will join the rest of the nation in drawing new district lines -- including those for congressional seats, where the closest race since 1994 was won by 22 percentage points.
Redistricting means that incumbents will get to choose their constituents before their constituents can choose their representatives. Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) admitted recently, "How we vote this fall will determine who gets to draw the lines -- and determine who gets elected to the General Assembly for the next 10 years."
One result is that few legislative elections offer voters real choice. Because Democrats controlled redistricting in 1991, they were able to shield the house from Republican control even as Republicans rolled up big gubernatorial wins in 1993 and 1997.
But under the sheer size of Republican gains, that shield is cracking. A loss of one more seat will mean Republican control of redistricting in 2001 -- and that is likely to cement GOP domination of the legislature until the next redistricting in 2011. In short, most Virginians' representation in 2009 will have far more to do with which party wins two or three delegate races in 1999 than with their votes in 2009.
So what can be done? Options range from the modest to the profound:
Make the redistricting process more public, with increased media coverage and citizen input. Better yet, turn redistricting over to commissions not driven by partisan concerns. Iowa's use of this approach has resulted in more competitive elections.
Elect legislators in three-seat districts with an alternative voting system. From 1870 to 1980, Illinois elected its lower house by cumulative voting, which led to two-party representation in nearly every district. Under this system, voters can divide their three votes in any way they choose, giving two votes to one candidate and one to another, for example, or giving all three votes to a single candidate. The result is more voter choice and more balanced policy-making. Restoration of cumulative voting in Illinois is supported by a bipartisan coalition.
Adopt a proportional representation system. Proportional systems are used by most of the world's established democracies because they give everyone a fair share of representation, with seats earned by political groupings in proportion to votes received. More voters participate, and policy more closely reflects majority interests. Gerrymandering is nearly impossible.
We should not dismiss the rising number of nonvoters as apathetic rather than victims of a stagnant election process. On the brink of a new century, it is time we returned the power of decision and representation to where it belongs -- with the voters.
-- Rob Richie
-- Stephen K. Medvic
are, respectively, the executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy and an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.