Is There Accountability Without Candidates?

Released November 15, 2007

Facts in the Spotlight

  • In November 2007, 65% of Virginia’s state delegates races and 57.5% of state senate races were won without major party competition – effectively uncontested.
  • In 2006, there were 6,159 state legislative races in the 45 states holding legislative elections; more than a third of races (37.6%) were uncontested by a major party.

The seemingly voracious desire of Democrats and Republicans to take seats from the opposition raises the question of just what it would take for one of the parties to give up some races without even a token fight and allow the opposition to win a seat unopposed.  You might think such waving of the white flag to be rare. You would be wrong.

Take Virginia. This year the state witnessed a vigorous battle for control of the state legislature. In the 2001 redistricting, Republicans had cemented their recently secured majority with a plan designed to boost Republican seats and protect their incumbents. Democrats won the governor’s race that year and again in 2005, but had fallen well short in the state legislature. This year, Democrats finally took over the state senate, but again failed in the House of Delegates.

Given the importance of this election, all Virginians might want to have a chance to cast a meaningful vote to determine the future direction of their government. But well over half of races in both the senate and house of delegates weren’t even contested by a major parties, and more than three out of four races (75.7%) were won by landslide margins of greater than 20% of the votes. The candidates were not the only no-shows; voter turnout was 28%.

Virginia’s level of contests and competition are hardly unique. Following the 1991 redistricting, for example, in the four elections between 1991 and 1997, hardly any seats changed, and 75% of all races were won by landslide. Even in 1999, the year the Republicans finally took over the House of Delegates after incremental, gains throughout the decade, 92 of 94 incumbents won, and 61% of seats weren’t even contested.

This all raises big questions about voter choice and accountability. Elections are the most fundamental recourse that Americans have to reward or punish their legislative leaders for their job. For most of us, we are mere bystanders as others cast the key votes. All too often legislative leaders can sit back knowing that their control of a chamber is beyond reach – indeed we have had legislative chambers run for well over a century of consecutive rule of one party.

Analysts often suggest independent redistricting as one step to boost voter choice in such elections – and indeed there is some chance a plan might be passed in the coming legislative session in Virginia. But while needed, such a process will have limited impact on voter choice and leadership accountability because most limitations on competition and choice are grounded in incumbent advantages and winner-take-all elections. For FairVote’s ideas on modest changes to winner-take-all voting that would put every voter in a position to cast meaningful votes in every legislative election, please visit our page on reforms to enhance independent redistricting.

With this issue we also bid a fond farewell to our communications director Paul Fidalgo, who has been seduced by the siren call of electoral politics. To learn more about Virginia’s state legislative elections please visit and for more information from FairVote, contact FairVote executive director Rob Richie at (301) 270-4616, or e-mail him at: