10/29/16: New districts don’t mean more competition

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

I WAS SURPRISED to see a television advertisement for a 2nd Congressional District candidate this week. With less than two weeks to go, the contest to replace retiring Rep. Scott Rigell has been a very quiet one.

Presidential campaigns tend to drown out all of the contests below, this cycle even more so than usual. Nevertheless, with no incumbent running in two of the three congressional seats covering the Southside of Hampton Roads, you might expect them to break through the din. After all, each of the three seats is contested. I’ve been disappointed that there hasn’t been more activity, especially given the change in the district lines.

Court-imposed redistricting affected five of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts, including all three — the 2nd, 3rd and 4th — on the Southside. Some voters may be a little surprised when they see their ballots, only realizing the change when they see unfamiliar names.

Much of the coverage of the redistricting happened in the run-up to last June’s primaries. Both the 2nd and the 4th had primary elections, with the 4th nominating both Republican and Democratic candidates. But voter participation in primaries is paltry compared to a November general election.

Typically, candidates take a break after the primary, but ratchet up activity after Labor Day. One thing is certain about this election cycle: it has not been a typical one. The recipe for an active fall campaign — lack of incumbents seeking reelection, no one running unopposed — seems to have failed us.

There is a difference between a contested election, however, and one that is competitive. I think the lack of competitiveness in these congressional races is the primary reason they have been relatively quiet.

Competitiveness is the likelihood that either candidate can win. A race is generally considered competitive if the difference between the winner and the loser is less than 10 points. Part of the reason for non-competitive contests is the way districts are drawn. Putting a majority of one party’s voters into one district — partisan redistricting — tends to reduce the likelihood that an election will be competitive. One might think that a court-imposed redistricting plan would have that effect. This one did not.

The reason for the court-mandated plan was the over-allocation of minority voters in the 3rd Congressional District. In curing this defect, the court had to also change the surrounding districts. Both the 2nd and the 3rd became more Republican, while the 4th became more Democratic. The change in the 2nd was small: according to the Virginia Public Access Project, it only became 1.5 percent more Republican. The shift in the 3rd and 4th was much larger, with the 3rd becoming nearly 14 percent more Republican and the 4th becoming about 12 percent more Democratic.

The 3rd was so overwhelmingly Democratic to start with that the increase in Republican voters doesn’t matter much. In addition, long-time incumbent U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott is seeking re-election. The increase in Democratic voters in the 4th literally forced incumbent Randy Forbes to unsuccessfully seek election in the neighboring 2nd district.

Drawing lines to consider race, then, has the same effect on competitiveness as partisan redistricting.

There has to be a better way to do this. When the outcome of an election is virtually a given, the decision on who should represent us is taken away. That is not how this is supposed to work.

Candidates should have to compete for our votes. They should have to share with us their vision for our future, and how they intend to accomplish that vision. Districts drawn in which they are not forced to do so does us — and them — a disservice.