The partisan stakes in
Virginia's legislative elections on Tuesday have never been higher.
After losing the governor's mansion and the state Senate, Democrats
are fighting to keep a one-seat majority in the House of Delegates.
Republicans seek to sweep state government for the first time since
But behind a torrent of political ads lies a
disturbing reality: sixty-one delegate races out of 100 already are
decided with no major party opposition.
Why would the parties give up on nearly
two-thirds of the seats when a single seat change could shift
control of the legislature? They know that Virginia's electoral
rules make most races lopsided and voters irrelevant.
If even 10 Virginia races are decided by
victory margins of less than 10 percent, it will be a surprise. In
the 1990s three of four delegate races have been won by margins of
at least 20 percent.
Since 1991 only 3 percent of the 300 delegate
races have resulted in a partisan shift. Republicans control every
seat they held in 1991 -- and have advanced on Democrats one seat at
Some blame this near-stasis on incumbency.
Indeed, only four incumbents have been defeated since 1991, but most
open seats also stay comfortably with one party. In 1997 only one of
nine open seats changed hands.
A better explanation for lack of
competitiveness is that most delegate districts are designed for one
party. In 2001 Virginia will join the rest of the nation in drawing
new district lines -- including those for congressional seats, where
the closest race since 1994 was won by 22 percentage points.
Redistricting means that incumbents will get
to choose their constituents before their constituents can choose
their representatives. Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) admitted recently,
"How we vote this fall will determine who gets to draw the lines --
and determine who gets elected to the General Assembly for the next
One result is that few legislative elections
offer voters real choice. Because Democrats controlled redistricting
in 1991, they were able to shield the house from Republican control
even as Republicans rolled up big gubernatorial wins in 1993 and
But under the sheer size of Republican gains,
that shield is cracking. A loss of one more seat will mean
Republican control of redistricting in 2001 -- and that is likely to
cement GOP domination of the legislature until the next
redistricting in 2011. In short, most Virginians' representation in
2009 will have far more to do with which party wins two or three
delegate races in 1999 than with their votes in 2009.
So what can be done? Options range from the
modest to the profound:
Make the redistricting process more public,
with increased media coverage and citizen input. Better yet, turn
redistricting over to commissions not driven by partisan concerns.
Iowa's use of this approach has resulted in more competitive
Elect legislators in three-seat districts
with an alternative voting system. From 1870 to 1980, Illinois
elected its lower house by cumulative voting, which led to two-party
representation in nearly every district. Under this system, voters
can divide their three votes in any way they choose, giving two
votes to one candidate and one to another, for example, or giving
all three votes to a single candidate. The result is more voter
choice and more balanced policy-making. Restoration of cumulative
voting in Illinois is supported by a bipartisan coalition.
Adopt a proportional representation system.
Proportional systems are used by most of the world's established
democracies because they give everyone a fair share of
representation, with seats earned by political groupings in
proportion to votes received. More voters participate, and policy
more closely reflects majority interests. Gerrymandering is nearly
We should not dismiss the rising number of
nonvoters as apathetic rather than victims of a stagnant election
process. On the brink of a new century, it is time we returned the
power of decision and representation to where it belongs -- with the
Rob Richie and Stephen
K. Medvic are, respectively, the executive director of the Center
for Voting and Democracy and an assistant professor of political
science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
A Lock On Elections In
_________1st District ñ 25th
__________26th District ñ 50th
____________51st District ñ 75th
______________76th District ñ 100th