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Is democracy a thing of the past in the General Assembly?

Most of us think we live in a representative democracy, but in Virginia, when it comes to the General Assembly, that’s not necessarily so. Thanks to legislative districts drawn with the sole aim of achieving a desired result, most voters don’t have much of a choice. Democracy has been sacrificed to preserve the party in power. And lest you think I am just picking on Republicans, I’m not. In days gone by the Democrats abused the system just as readily as the Republicans do now. But that doesn’t make it right.

In Virginia, in recent times, it’s been the Republicans who have been the biggest abusers of their redistricting authority. The way it works is that the party in power at the time of the census draws the districts.  Thanks to some ingenious software which first came into common use in the late 1990s, census data, election participation rates, and polling information are used with amazing precision to craft highly predictable districts. In the case of the House of Delegates, to maximize the number of GOP seats, Democratic votes are confined to as few districts as possible. They become guaranteed Democratic seats. While on the other hand the number of solid GOP, or Republican leaning seats is maximized. The idea, and this is the real threat to democracy, is that the number of seats that are marginal is decidedly small.

During last year’s House of Delegates election, 56 seats were uncontested by the other party. That meant that over half of Virginia had no choice at all. Where there was a choice, only 15 seats were considered competitive and of these only 8 were considered highly competitive. What’s curious is that this doesn’t reflect the way the state votes. While there shouldn’t be a one-for-one correlation between state house and statewide votes, they shouldn’t be that dramatically different either. But, they are.

In the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections the Commonwealth voted Democratic and currently every statewide office holder is a Democrat. Generally, with the exception of Mark Warner, who won in 2008 by a landslide, even carrying Stafford, these have been close fought races. And most notably, in a different electoral environment, could just as easily flip back to the Republicans. In other words, Virginia itself, is decidedly marginal. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the General Assembly should, at least to a modest degree, reflect that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

The House of Delegates has 68 Republicans and 32 Democrats, and that’s not going to change. Under the current district boundaries, there is no way the Democrats can gain back much ground. Like minded voters have been carefully grouped into their own safe little bastions, providing as little spillover as possible, thereby all but assuring the outcome. Inevitably, even the Democratic incumbents, guaranteed their own victories, though always a minority, start to like the system too. After all, they have safe seats. What happens, and we’ve seen this in several races, is that the only competition that occurs is in the nomination process. Since candidates are competing for a limited number of generally very conservative voters, or in the case of safe Democratic seats, liberal voters, the tendency is push all the candidates further to the ideological edges. That’s not healthy and it’s not democracy.

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