IN VIRGINIA, the incumbent protection racket known as redistricting has ensured that another all-but-meaningless season of state legislative elections has arrived, and with it the predictable response — namely, apathy and wan turnout. That’s fine by the lawmakers who drew the commonwealth’s electoral map, and who evidently prefer that voters ratify the status quo than enjoy a genuine choice at the ballot.
In legislative elections in November, a Republican faces a Democrat in just 29 of the 100 races for the House of Delegates. As for those 29, most feature underfunded challengers mounting quixotic races against entrenched incumbents; they are contests in name only.
The picture for the state Senate isn’t much better. A Republican faces a Democrat in just 20 of the 40 seats; perhaps a half-dozen races will wind up being genuinely competitive. (In one nominal contest, state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-Williamsburg), a darling of corporate lobbyists, has a war chest approaching $2 million; his Democratic opponent has less than $10,000.)
Taking the two chambers together, well over half of incumbents are running unopposed.
This year’s festival of noncompetition fits a pattern that’s become familiar in the commonwealth’s legislative elections. Of the 200 races for the House of Delegates in 2011 and 2013 combined, just 17 were competitive, meaning a victory margin of less than 10 percentage points. Most winners were unopposed incumbents; in the 71 contests that did feature a candidate from each major party, the average victory margin was 20 percentage points.
Given such a pallid electoral tableau, who can blame voters for staying away? Turnout in 2011, the most recent year of legislative-only elections, was less than 29 percent, down from 49 percent in 1991.
The best bet to defeat that sort of disengagement and cynicism is to reform the procedures by which legislative districts are drawn, so that lawmakers can no longer use computer gimmickry to forge electoral maps that assure comfortable victories delivered by handpicked voters. The key, as a number of states have realized, is to entrust redistricting to nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions. They would be charged with drawing maps without regard to protecting incumbents.
Those who have endorsed such a plan include former governor George Allen and former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling, both Republicans, and Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, both former Virginia governors. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) also supports a nonpartisan redistricting process.
Some legislators in Richmond also have signed on to the idea, but not enough to overcome the self-interested opposition of Republicans who control both chambers of the General Assembly. Unconcerned with plummeting voter participation in Virginia’s sham democracy, they summon the usual excuses for doing nothing, such as insisting that redistricting is inherently political.
In fact, the essence of politics in a democracy is, or should be, genuine competition. By casting aside that fundamental truth, Virginia’s legislature has come to resemble a Politburo.