Predictable results – the incumbents, of course!

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Last month’s elections turned out to be predictable.  All 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly were up for election, but voter turnout was only about 26 percent — just over one in four registered voters bothered to show up at the polls.

The 40 members of the Virginia Senate serve four-year terms, and the 100 House of Delegates members are elected every two years. As a result, every four years all 140 seats are on the ballot at the same time.  Four years ago in 2011, voter turnout was 29 percent; four years before that it was 30 percent; going back to 2003 it was 31 percent.

The declining trend is clear.  During the 1980s and 1990s turnout for general elections usually hit 50 percent or higher.  By all accounts, a 26 percent turnout in 2015 is the lowest in modern history.

Let’s contrast these results to more popular election years. The 2013 gubernatorial race saw a 43 percent turnout and the 2012 presidential race prompted 72 percent of Virginia’s voters to go to the polls.

What accounts for these differences? In years with no national or statewide office on the ballot, voter interest is always lower.  Furthermore, low turnout is purposefully designed into our election system.

Many city council and school board elections are held in May to insulate them from statewide politics. The governor’s race is set for the year after presidential elections to insulate it from national politics.

Lower turnout always favors incumbent office holders.  Who sets these rules? The incumbents – of course!  Even when the rules are constitutionally proscribed, changing them requires that a bill first be passed by existing office-holders.

What about gerrymandering?  Twenty-one states use a nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commission.  Virginia is not among them.  Who sets our districts?  The incumbents — of course!  Regardless of party, the majority always works hard to tilt the electoral table in their favor.  Republicans do this — Democrats, too.  Electoral district boundaries are set just once every 10 years, following the U.S. Census.

Let’s look again at last month’s general election.  Before the first vote was cast, these were the choices:

Of the 100 House seats up for election, only 29 districts had more than one major party candidate on the ballot.  Forty-four Republicans and 27 Democrats were virtually assured of election due to lack of opposition.

Of the 40 Senate seats, only 20 had more than one major party candidate. Ten Republicans and 10 Democrats were assured of election.  In the remaining 20 Senate districts only a handful were considered to be truly competitive.

Given the lack of competition, the election results came as no surprise. Senate Republicans kept a 21-19 majority, exactly the same as before the election.  In the House, the Republicans lost just one seat, retaining a solid 66-34 majority.  That’s it — basically no change.

Whether or not one thinks change is needed, it is a distortion of democracy to have voting districts so narrowly sculpted that in the majority of races opposing candidates don’t even bother to run.

Statewide elections, where voting districts don’t matter, are distinctly more competitive.

In recent decades, Virginia’s governors, lieutenant governors and U.S. senators have been almost equally split between Republicans and Democrats.  The office of the attorney general bucks this trend. The post currently is held by a Democrat, but previously had been  held by Republicans since 1994.

Looking at presidential races, Virginia is a swing state, going Democratic in 2008 and 2012. By all accounts it will be a battleground again in 2016.

Who benefits from an entrenched General Assembly?  The incumbents — of course! More money than ever is flowing into political campaigns, which is ironic given how little it seems to alter the results.  Lobbyists also benefit from long-term relationships with career politicians.

Speaking of career politicians, retirement was the biggest cause of turnover in Virginia’s 2015 elections.  Four Republican and two Democratic senators retired. In each case the retiring incumbents were replaced by candidates from the same party.  In the House, four Republicans and five Democrats retired.  Five of these nine races featured only a single major party candidate.  Of the remaining four, three were won by members of the non-incumbent party.  A little competition seems to have gone a long way.

If a little competition is good, how can we get more?  Redistricting?  Term limits?  Right now, the governor’s office is the only one that isn’t allowed successive terms.

There are only two paths that can lead to these sorts of changes.  The first is through the General Assembly, which seems quite happy with the status quo.  The second is through the courts; that’s a tall order, largely requiring that the laws in question be deemed illegal or unconstitutional.

Regardless, federal and state courts both have Virginia redistricting cases pending.  Let’s hope that they turn out to be a little less predictable.

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