VIRGINIA VOTERS have given up on state legislative elections, and for good reason. Cynical lawmakers in Richmond seem determined to keep democracy nothing but an aspiration in the commonwealth.
Turnout in legislative-only contests for the General Assembly has fallen dizzyingly, to less than 29 percent in 2011 from 49 percent in 1991. Virginians stay away from the elections for an excellent reason: They are shams, engineered by insiders as festivals of incumbent protection.
Of the 200 races for the state House of Delegates in 2011 and 2013 combined, just 17 were competitive, meaning a victory margin of less than 10 percentage points. In 129 of those 200 races, the winning Republican or Democrat faced no opposition from the other major party. And in the 71 contests where a Democrat and Republican did square off, most were blowouts, with an average victory margin of 20 percentage points. The last state Senate race, in 2011, wasn’t much better.
Those lopsided results are no accident in a system where elected representatives get to handpick their voters through computer-assisted cartographical sleight of hand. Why should voters go to the polls when gerrymandering has become so scientifically precise that the results of legislative elections are preordained?
The way to fix this is by reforming the process by which legislative districts are drawn, as a number of states have done. Nonpartisan redistricting commissions can fashion electoral maps that will yield many more genuinely competitive races and many more districts that are compact and contained, not squiggly scrawls of tortuous lines.
That sort of reform has been endorsed by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and pushed by some lawmakers of both parties. But the status quo serves so many incumbents, especially Republicans who enjoy an overwhelming majority in the House of Delegates, that there seems little prospect of establishing an independent commission any time soon.
A champion of the dysfunctional status quo is Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Spotsylvania), who has had only token opponents or none at all since he was elected in 2001. Mr. Cole’s cakewalks owe nothing to his legislative renown; he is best known in Richmond as the author of a bill, in 2010, to ban employers from implanting microchips in the heads of employees, lest they prove a conduit for the Antichrist.
Using a similar degree of reason, Mr. Cole, who chairs the House committee that oversees electoral issues, said reform is a low priority because the next redistricting is five years off.
But that’s exactly why it should be taken up now, when incumbents would not feel immediately threatened by jiggering with their district boundaries.
Mr. Cole complains that reform would “take politics out of an inherently political process” — the usual excuse used by incumbents who never enjoy even the remote risk of a competitive election.
Given current trends, perhaps Mr. Cole will be happy when turnout falls below 20 percent, or even below 15 percent, and incumbents are simply returned to office by unspoken consensus. Who needs voters, after all?
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