STATE LEGISLATIVE elections in Virginia have come to bear a certain resemblance to what passed for voting in the old Soviet Union. There, candidates, unopposed and endorsed by the Communist Party, routinely ran up victories with 99 percent of the vote, although voters had the theoretical right to cast a “no” ballot. In Virginia’s elections this month, the competition wasn’t much tougher.
As we reported on the eve of the elections, just 27 of the 100 contests for Virginia’s House of Delegates featured a Democrat and a Republican. That was bad enough. In the election, the winner trounced the loser by a margin of about 10 percentage points or more in all but five races statewide. In other words, 95 percent of the state’s House races were either uncontested or blowouts.
Races for the state Senate weren’t much more spine-tingling. Although there were Democrats and Republicans on the ballot for 25 of the 40 seats, just six races ended up being remotely close.
If the two major parties’ leaders are intent on emulating the stolid Soviet apparatchiks of old and establishing a parody of democracy, they’re making fine progress.
The noncompetition is the direct result of computer-assisted gerrymandering carried out this year by Republican grandees (in the House) and their Democratic counterparts (in the Senate). Rejecting calls for a nonpartisan reform of the redistricting process, the pols picked their voters and drew their maps based on maximum self-interest, aiming mainly to protect incumbents. In the large majority of cases, it worked, leaving manipulated voters to cast all but meaningless ballots in what amounted to cartographically rigged elections. Who could be surprised by the wretchedly low turnout — scarcely more than 26 percent?
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), as a candidate for election in 2009, said he favored nonpartisan redistricting that would do away with the blatant gerrymandering that has come to characterize elections in most states. His position was a reversal from his previous stance — a reflection, he said, of serious thought.
We took Mr. McDonnell at his word. But when it came to the hard part — the politics — he punted. Rather than propose and push a serious alternative, the governor put forward a plan designed for failure. He created a toothless advisory commission on redistricting whose recommendations, predictably, were ignored by both parties.
Mr. McDonnell’s empty campaign promise, combined with the deeply ingrained institutional bias of both parties to maintain their grip on power, are to blame for voting results that discredit the state and reflect contempt of the political class for the electorate. The system yields candidates who appeal to the extremes, in order to win primaries, and see no advantage in courting the middle — a recipe for a very low brand of politics. Perhaps Virginians should start addressing their political leaders with a new honorific: Comrade.