In Virginia, the incumbent protection racket known as redistricting has ensured that another all-but-meaningless season of state legislative elections has arrived, and with it the predictable response — namely, apathy and wan turnout. That’s fine by the lawmakers who drew the commonwealth’s electoral map, and who evidently prefer that voters ratify the status quo than enjoy a genuine choice at the ballot. In legislative elections in November, a Republican faces a Democrat in just 29 of the 100 races for the House of Delegates. As for those 29, most feature underfunded challengers mounting quixotic races against entrenched incumbents; they are contests in name only. The picture for the state Senate isn’t much better. A Republican faces a Democrat in just 20 of the 40 seats; perhaps a half-dozen races will wind up being genuinely competitive. (In one nominal contest, state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-Williamsburg), a darling of corporate lobbyists, has a war chest approaching $2 million; his Democratic opponent has less than $10,000.) Taking the two chambers together, well over half of incumbents are running unopposed.
This year’s festival of noncompetition fits a pattern that’s become familiar in the commonwealth’s legislative elections. Of the 200 races for the House of Delegates in 2011 and 2013 combined, just 17 were competitive, meaning a victory margin of less than 10 percentage points. Most winners were unopposed incumbents; in the 71 contests that did feature a candidate from each major party, the average victory margin was 20 percentage points.
Given such a pallid electoral tableau, who can blame voters for staying away? Turnout in 2011, the most recent year of legislative-only elections, was less than 29 percent, down from 49 percent in 1991.