10/19/11: Do you know who’s on the ballot?

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

IN JUST UNDER three weeks, the entire 140-seat Virginia General Assembly will be up for election. What, you didn’t realize there was an election coming? Unfortunately, you’re not alone.

In a poll released Monday, the large majority of voters — more than 70 percent — said they have given little or no thought to the Nov. 8 election.

While that number may very well increase a little in the coming days, it does not bode well for turnout. In 2007, the last time the entire General Assembly was up for reelection, a paltry 30.2 percent of registered voters bothered to vote. Could the turnout drop even further this November? I’d not be surprised if it did.

One of the many reasons for the disengagement is the low number of contested races and the even lower number of competitive races. By my count, of the 29 General Assembly seats in Hampton Roads, only eight are contested and four are competitive. Without contested elections, the voters have no choice. And without competitive elections — elections in which each candidate has a chance to win — the voters have no reason to pay attention.

Competitiveness is a function of how the districts are drawn. Virginia’s legislators draw their own districts, so it should be no surprise that there are few in which the voters are given a choice.

With each redistricting, the legislators get better at reducing the possibility for competition. You need only to look at the turnout reports to see it. Ten years ago, after the last redistricting, voter turnout was about 46 percent. Ten years before that, in 1991, it was 49 percent. In 1982, the first election after the original 1981 redistricting plan was thrown out by the Justice Department and a subsequent plan approved, it was 65 percent.

Harry Byrd would be proud.

With national issues dominating the news, Virginia voters turn out at a much higher rate for federal races, even in nonpresidential years. In 2006, with the U.S. Senate race at the top of the ballot, turnout was nearly 53 percent.

Already the focus is on the looming 2012 congressional and presidential races. Candidates who won’t even be around come January are household names. A lot of them started their political careers in local and state politics, as did many of Virginia’s federal officeholders.

The top contenders for their party’s nomination in next year’s Senate race are both products of Virginia politics. George Allen, the likely Republican nominee, served in the House of Delegates. Tim Kaine, the likely Democratic nominee, served as mayor of Richmond before being elected lieutenant governor, a position whose functions include acting as president of the state Senate.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is often mentioned as a vice presidential candidate, served 14 years in the House of Delegates. Eric Cantor, who is now majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, served for eight years in the House of Delegates. Congressman Bobby Scott served in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate.

That so many of those on the national stage are products of the Virginia General Assembly is not an accident. It is, after all, the oldest continuous law-making body in the Western Hemisphere, having been established in 1619. As a child, I was taught Virginia’s nickname: the Mother of Presidents. Four of the first five presidents of the United States came from Virginia, and we can claim eight Virginia-born presidents.

Could another president be lurking in Virginia today? Of course. And he or she could be on the ballot Nov. 8.

Spend some time, check out the candidates. And vote.