IN VIRGINIA’S sham democracy, 85 to 95 percent of state legislative races are blowouts — unless they’re completely uncontested. Given the chance, many voters would doubtless love some semblance of choice on Election Day. But lawmakers in Richmond, pleased at the prospect of guaranteed victories, are intent on blocking reforms.
Occasionally, there are glimmers of hope that things might be cleaned up through bipartisan redistricting, which might result in an electoral map drawn for the benefit of voters, not incumbents. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) raised expectations as a candidate in 2009 when, despite his own history of opposing reforms as a lawmaker, he said he’d changed his mind and now favored bipartisan redistricting.
Alas, the governor’s conversion turned out to be situational. Given the chance once in office, he declined to challenge the legislature’s entrenched powers, instead proposing a toothless “advisory” commission on redistricting whose recommendations, predictably, were ignored by lawmakers.
The lawmakers instead devised an electoral map intended exclusively to protect incumbents — Democrats in the Senate, Republicans in the House. It’s a plan so cynically effective that it resulted in the most lopsidedly uncompetitive legislative races in memory. Of 100 races for the House of Delegates in 2011, just 27 were contested by both a Republican and a Democrat, and just five of those were even remotely close. Races for the state Senate weren’t much closer.
Now there is another glimmer of hope. The state Senate, whose 40 seats are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, unanimously passed legislation to create a bipartisan redistricting commission. The seven-member commission, which would exclude officeholders, would consist of three Democrats, three Republicans and a seventh member, the chairman, selected by the other six.
True, the commission’s clout would be limited. Its recommended electoral map would be submitted to the General Assembly, which would still have the final say. But that, at least, amounts to constructive coercion that might shame some incumbents into considering the state’s welfare, not just their own.
Unfortunately, the Senate plan is going nowhere in the House, thanks to self-interested pols who like the old way of doing business — and to Mr. McDonnell, who, notwithstanding his conversion as a candidate, can’t muster the political spine to endorse it.
“We’re accountable to the people where an independent commission is not,” said Del. Mark L. Cole (Fredericksburg), a Republican defender of the status quo. In fact, lawmakers like Mr. Cole ensure that the system yields candidates who appeal to the extremes, in order to win primaries, and see no advantage in courting the middle. That is a recipe for venomous polarization, and the degradation of politics that Americans have, for good reason, come to loathe.
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