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No suspense in legislative races

Published 8:32pm Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Nov. 5 is supposed be a spirited election in Virginia for reasons beyond the always-interesting selection of a new governor.

At least that’s the way the commonwealth’s framers intended it by requiring that members of the House of Delegates be elected every two years.

Rather, General Assembly elections will be a non-event this fall in Suffolk and many other areas of Virginia thanks to the hopeless — and perhaps irreversible — politicization of redistricting, whose practitioners strategically draw election boundaries to ensure partisan outcomes.

The result is this: The four incumbents who represent portions of Suffolk in the House of Delegates will be re-elected this fall without opposition. In all of Hampton Roads, only four of 15 House seats will be competitive on the Nov. 5 ballot.

So much for the “people’s House,” which framers envisioned the House of Delegates to be.

It should be noted that Suffolk is blessed with good representation in the House. Chris Jones, the lone resident delegate among the four incumbents, is highly regarded as a statesman in Richmond, as one who puts leadership above partisanship. Lionell Spruill Sr. has served his constituents honorably for two decades. Newcomers Rick Morris and Matthew James are off to good starts in Richmond.

That none of the four has opponents this fall, though, speaks less about their universal appeal to voters than to the reality of the political and demographic math: No member of the opposition party stands a snowball’s chance of unseating them.

A Republican, no matter how competent and capable, would waste time and money challenging Spruill in the reliably Democratic 77th District. Same goes for a Democrat in the 76th District.

It would be tempting to blame this noncompetitiveness on Republicans, the party in power at the moment in Richmond.

However, extreme gerrymandering has been facilitated by Democrats and their insistence on so-called “majority-minority” districts. In guaranteeing the election of a certain number of black lawmakers by packing black voters into a handful of legislative districts, legislators make other districts less competitive.

The irony of a Democratic administration in Washington — specifically the U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces the Voting Rights Act — helping preside over a process that helps ensure Republican control of the General Assembly shouldn’t be lost on Democrats who complain about GOP heavy-handedness in redistricting.

The 50-year effort, perhaps noble at its origin, to ensure the election of black lawmakers at all levels of government has helped zap our democracy of competitive elections. Most Virginians now go to the polls and cast ballots for city council, General Assembly and congressional candidates in elections whose outcomes were pre-ordained.

Yet our leaders wonder why voter turnout is low in non-presidential elections and why more good candidates don’t run for office.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.

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