Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Washington Post

An article in the Style section of today's Washington Post asks the question, why are Virginia voters so uninterested in this year's -- or any year's -- gubernatorial election?

In "Virginia's Quadrennial Dilemma: Whosis or Whatsizname?," Post reporter Linton Weeks turns to a number of old hands at Virginia politics to explore the issue: former Governor Jim Gilmore. VCU political scientist and Rolodex regular Robert Holsworth. Library of Virginia historian Brent Tarter. The late V. O. Key. And me.

As the winner of a Tony Award might say, I am honored to be in such distinguished company.

Seriously, though, I knew Weeks' article was coming, because he interviewed me twice over the telephone last week. I'm pleased to say that most of what I told him made it into print, either as a quotation or as a paraphrase.

Weeks begins his article with a summary of the reasons given for the decline in voter interest by his panel of experts:

First of all, the election is always held in an off-off year -- that is, a yawner of a year when there are no national elections. So you don't have anybody at the top of the ticket -- presidential or congressional candidates -- to make you get out of bed and put on your voting shoes. This year the election is on Nov. 8.

The bottom of the ticket doesn't look too sexy either. Of the 100 state delegate races, most of the candidates are incumbents who are running unopposed.

Virginia is the only state in America that does not allow a governor to run for a second term, so there are never any incumbents in the race. You are always being introduced to new politicians and you're never dashing down to the polling booth to keep your candidate in office or to run the other rascal out. The two gubernatorial front-runners are virtually unknown in many parts of the state.

As befits a Style-section article, Weeks makes some analogies with pop-culture images and then gets into the meatiest part of his analysis:
Over and over you hear the same plaint from voters. Like Coke and Pepsi, Wal-Mart and Kmart, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen -- Kilgore and Kaine are so genetically, generically similar that it's tough to tell them apart. They may be the most uniform candidates since sliced bread.

Virginians might also be politicked out. Rick Sincere, chairman of the Charlottesville Electoral Board, speaks of his state's election fatigue. There is at least one election every year in Virginia, whether it's local, state or federal. In some communities there are two elections every other year. "And that's not even counting primaries," he says.

Sincere believes that one salient reason for the statewide dearth of enthusiasm in the gubernatorial contest is the "lack of competition in down-ticket races."

In other words, there are not a lot of contentious local contests. "Unless you've got someone talking about those issues that are close to home," Sincere says, "you're not going to get people to come out to the polls."

He says that over the years gerrymandering has created districts that favor incumbent officials and discourage competition. He thinks that a nonpartisan redistricting system, such as what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing in California or the one that already exists in Iowa, might partially solve the problem of off-off ennui.

Other proposed solutions include moving the governor's race to another year that might have more national interest. And allowing governors to serve for a second term.

"People think this is such an important tradition," Sincere says of the Virginia gubernatorial system, "and if it ain't broke don't fix it. Although there a lot of people who would say it is broke."

Then I learned something I never knew before -- one of those things Michael Feldman on Wisconsin Public Radio's Whad' Ya Know? would call "Things* *You Should Have Learned in School (had you been paying attention)." In looking at Virginia elections through history, Weeks reveals that V. O. Key's full name was "Vladimer Orlando Key." That's like finding out Kramer's first name is Cosmo.

The things you miss in civics class.

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