House of Delegates elections offer fewer choices for Virginia voters

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 8, 2003

When they go to the polls in November, more than half of Virginia’s estimated 4.2 million registered voters won’t have a choice in House of Delegates elections.

Legislative redistricting has led to a sharp increase in the number of House incumbents running without opposition. This year, 58 incumbents are running unopposed, up from 38 incumbents two years ago.

The lack of competitive races in the 100-member House is the result of redistricting in 2001, when Republicans took advantage of sophisticated mapping technology to create more districts friendly to GOP candidates.

Email newsletter signup

The leap in the ability for computers to analyze demographics and voting trends enabled Republicans to draw district boundaries with more precision than the Democrats had done 10 years earlier, said Scott Leake, executive director of the Joint Republican Caucus.

The result is more one-party districts, leaving more than half of Virginia’s 4.2 million registered voters without a choice this year in who represents them in the House.

&uot;Voters lose out because there’s less choice and in a democracy, that’s unfortunate,&uot; said Tom Shields, a public policy professor at the University of Richmond.

The majority party redraws legislative lines for the House and Senate every ten years, following the U.S. Census.

Two years ago, Republicans were in the majority during redistricting for the first time in a century.

During the previous redistricting process, Democrats used first-generation computer technology to help redraw the legislative lines.

By 2001, mapping technology had become much more powerful, allowing Republicans to isolate voting tendencies and redraw the districts with unprecedented precision.

The fall-off in challenged races is a natural consequence of the high-tech 2001 redistricting, said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, a political strategist who served as legislative counsel to Virginia Democrats during the redistricting process.

&uot;[Republicans] had the tools and they had the will,&uot; she said.

During this election, the results of the redistricting are perhaps most apparent in the Greater Richmond area. Of the region’s 13 incumbents, only two are contested.

In the Hampton Roads region, only seven House incumbents out of 21 are contested.

One exception is Northern Virginia, where about half of the House incumbents face challenges.

Statewide, 38 Republican and 20 Democratic incumbents are running without opposition.

Republicans now hold 64 seats in the 100-member House. The lack of competitive seats means Republicans will remain entrenched in the House for the foreseeable future.

&uot;The Republicans are definitely going to strengthen their hand,&uot; said Shields, who is also a former aide to U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News.

Though there was a large increase in the number of unopposed House incumbents, there was little change in the Senate.

Of the 36 Senate incumbents running for re-election, 17 are uncontested.

During the redistricting, the Senate legislative lines were not as drastically redrawn because Senate districts are much larger, making it more difficult to shift a district from one party to the other.

Also, the culture in the Senate is more collegial and less bitterly partisan than the House, Leake said.

&uot;They weren’t quite as zealous in carving up their colleagues’ districts (in the Senate),&uot; he said.

The Republican redistricting efforts sparked a legal challenge from Democrats, who said the plan was biased against black voters.

Last November, Virginia’s Supreme Court rejected that argument and upheld the GOP’s redistricting plan.

For more information on House of Delegates and Senate candidates running for the Nov. 4 election, please go to

Brian McNeil works for the Virginia Public Access Project.