Political parties need a bigger tent

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

Virginia’s population is increasingly diverse.  Acc­ording to population statistics from the 2010 census, supplied by the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia, white males, ages 18 and over, now account for just 34.2 percent of Virginia’s voting age population.  So much for the long-held stereotype of an electorate dominated by “old white guys.”

Similarly, the stereotype of Virginia and other Southern states as having populations largely divided between black and white is increasingly outdated.  Blacks now account for only 18.7 percent of the commonwealth’s population while more than one out of 10 residents (10.7 percent) represent other minorities.  Turning from race to ethnicity, 6.9 percent of Virginia’s adult population identify themselves as Hispanic, with half of this group being U.S. citizens.

In fact, 44 percent of all elementary school pupils in Fairfax County Public Schools speak a language other than English at home. Together, the children speak more than 100 languages.

Then, of course, there is gender diversity.  Women account for a slight majority of Virginia’s adult population at 51.5 percent.

Politically, one-third of the population normally identifies themselves as independent voters.  That means the other two-thirds arguably are split between Democrats and Republicans, who frequently need independents’ votes to win an election.

Despite currently holding the governor’s office, a majority in the House of Delegates and half the seats in the Virginia Senate, Virginia Republicans need not look too far back to remember Democratic victories in the last presidential election, two U.S. Senate races and two successive gubernatorial elections. 
What both parties must have to win is a bigger tent.  This means a platform that unites a broad and increasingly diverse set of views.  Instead, we have gerrymandered legislative and congressional districts, with politicians choosing their voters.

Voter turnout has much to do with winning elections.  In 2008, 67 percent of Virginia’s voting-age adults cast ballots in the presidential election.  In the 2009 governor’s race, voter participation fell to 40 percent.  In 2011, only 28 percent of eligible voters participated in the Virginia Senate election and only 26 percent voted in the House of Delegates contests.

The correlation between voter turnout and election results during the past several elections is pretty clear.  The Republican Party has done better when voter turnout is lower.  This provides not necessarily a justification, but at least some explanation of the importance to the majority in the General Assembly of tightening voter identification requirements, despite a lack of material evidence of voter fraud.

Herein lies the rub.  The success of our democracy ought to be predicated on more voter participation, not less.

The United States essentially has a two-party political system.  Many times better results are achieved when neither party has a complete majority. Statesmanship is the art of compromise.  Good legislation is forged through the crucible of collaboration, rather than the fire of combat.

Looking ahead, both parties face challenges in Virginia. For decades, the commonwealth has elected a governor from the opposite party following a presidential election. The election of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, for example, followed the election of Democratic President Barack Obama.

The goal of Virginia Republicans in the next cycle will be to break this trend, winning the White House while keeping the Executive Mansion. 

Democrats on the other hand, have an incumbent in the White House but have yet to field competitive candidates for the 2013 gubernatorial election.

Both parties will need a bigger tent to attract the independent voters.  The cumulative results of redistricting have driven party platforms away from the center and toward the extremes. 

In addition to voter identification, recent legislation easing restriction on handgun purchases and requiring ultrasounds before an abortion have not helped the Republicans controlling the General Assembly.

A poll by Christopher Newport University and the Richmond Times-Dispatch found that, by wide margins, Virginians were not in favor of these changes.
The legislature also has been lampooned nationally by late-night TV shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show,” tarnishing Virginia’s image as a great place to live and do business. Unfortunately these issues took center stage at a time when the commonwealth would have been much better served by hard work on funding transportation, education and public safety and creating jobs.

Virginia’s changing demographics are resulting in an increasingly diverse voting population, one that is likely to be concerned with issues like voter registration, immigration reform and women’s rights and more reflective of global values like inclusiveness.  The bigger tent will win.

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