RICHMOND, Va. — While some Virginia politicians are going door to door meeting potential voters and spending money on campaign ads weeks before the November 7 election, others don’t even have an opponent.
Democrat Jeion Ward and Republican Chris Jones, for instance, have been elected by default to the Virginia House of Delegates for more than 10 years.
Ward represents the 92nd district in Hampton, while Jones runs in the 76th district in Suffolk and Chesapeake. And they’re not alone in winning their seats year after year without opposition.
“This is not for forever. Sometimes you get to it and you think it’s your seat. It’s not my seat. It belongs to the people of the 92nd House district and they are allowing me to represent them right now. And if they choose someone else, that’s okay,” said Ward.
Though he hasn’t faced an opponent since 2005, Jones said the lack of opposition for his seat hasn’t impacted his campaign message nor his work in the House of Delegates.
“Re-election is not about campaigns or opponents, it is about service to the citizens of the 76th district and the Commonwealth. Since first being elected this continues to be my focus, public service not political achievements,” said Jones.
Of the 100 House seats up for election this November, 33 are uncontested. Ten Republicans and 23 Democrats run unopposed. All of those seats are held by incumbents.
In 2015, Ward won her district with 100 percent of all votes. But when asked if she thought that running uncontested had an effect on her job, she said that she performed her job and campaigned for her office in the exact same way. Ward attributed her decade of success to her community engagement efforts and responsiveness to the needs of her constituents, but said the seat ultimately belonged to the people of her district.
But political science experts pointed to larger political realities to explain the noncompetitive nature of local house elections. They said gerrymandering, the manipulation of district lines by the party in power, is a typical way of keeping incumbents in office.
“Gerrymandering has existed for a very long time, over 200 years,” Bill Oglesby, associate professor of journalism at VCU. “What makes it a much bigger problem today is that we have these computer algorithms that can so accurately predict not just the way a certain block might vote, but the way a certain household might vote. Based off of things like the magazines you subscribe to or which primary you chose to vote in. It really works, which means it doesn’t work for us as citizens.”
Thomas Coen, professor of political science at VCU and a former Republican candidate for the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, said that gerrymandering made sense, because it organized voters into districts where the majority of voters shared similar political views.
“A lot of our districts that deal with redistricting are made so they're dealing solidly with one party. If you look at those districts, how they vote locally, state and nationally, they tend to vote for those parties, so it’s a natural fit,” Coen said.
Gerrymandering isn’t exclusively used by Democrats or Republicans, but is practiced by the party in power regardless of their social or political ideologies. The current districts in Virginia were drawn in 2010 when Republicans were solely in control.
Jeff South, associate professor of journalism at VCU, said one of the dangers of uncontested elections is that they don’t receive media attention.
“It is detrimental to the political process. When you only have one person on the ballot, that’s something we associate with communist governments,” South said. “If the uncontested candidate gets 99 percent of the vote and you’ve got one percent that’s like write-ins. What’s that saying? It simply says there was no other choice.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com has partnered with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students from the project reported this story.