Why Bother Voting?

Published October 25th 2005 in Washington Post
We would love to write an editorial assuring voters in Virginia that their votes matter and that they should, therefore, resist apathy and get out to the polls on Election Day. This is true enough for the statewide races. But for the 100 races for the commonwealth's House of Delegates, well, get out and vote anyway -- but don't kid yourselves. Most of your votes won't matter a bit.

More than half of candidates for House seats, 51 to be precise, are running unopposed. An additional 11 face only minor-party candidates or independents as opposition. In other words, 62 percent of districts lack candidates from both major parties. Even in an election year in which the national Republican Party is weak, and a Democratic candidate for governor could win for the second time in a row, the legislative contest is already over. Solid Republican control over the Virginia House of Delegates will persist, irrespective of popular sentiment. That might well be true even if all incumbents faced serious challengers. But at least then the makeup of the House would reflect the choices of the voters. This election matters only at the margins.
Virginia's rate of noncompetitive elections is significantly higher than the national average, but it isn't much different from a number of other states, according to data from the Center for Voting and Democracy. In last year's elections, for example, five states -- Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, New Mexico and Texas -- conducted at least 60 percent of their legislative elections without a candidate from both major parties.

Elections are supposed to be about vigorous debate, about clashing visions for managing problems, and, above all, about voter choice and accountability for those who serve. Yet partisan redistricting, combined with all of the natural advantages of incumbency, makes Election Day a kind of popular ratification of a distribution of political power that took place years earlier, during the last round of drawing district lines. Politicians are choosing their voters, rather than the other way around. It's wrong, and it has a corrosive effect on the very idea of popular sovereignty.